Packers' secondary becoming primary

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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Over the last two calendar years, the Green Bay Packers have put some of their most valuable draft resources into their secondary, and it’s showing.

In that time, the Packers have spent two first-round draft picks (safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in 2014 and cornerback Damarious Randall in ’15) and one second-round pick (Quinten Rollins in ’15) on defensive backs.

Early this preseason it looks like those investments will pay off on the field in 2016, because Clinton-Dix, Randall and Rollins are three of the ascending talents on the team.

Clinton-Dix has as good a chance as any of the young players on the roster to emerge as one of the team’s next stars. Though he played only the first two series Thursday night against Oakland and didn’t make any splash plays, he has proved this preseason to be courageous and physical, while doing the dirty work against the run that’s necessary to play good defense in the NFL.

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The Packers play so much nickel personnel that their safeties often have to perform almost as linebackers in stopping the run. One play by Clinton-Dix in particular stood out Thursday night, with 4:14 left in the first quarter.

On a first down, the Packers were in nickel to match up with Oakland’s three-receiver set. But they had Clinton-Dix walk into the box as an extra run defender, and sure enough, the Raiders ran Latavius Murray his way with a tight end, guard and tackle leading the charge.

Clinton-Dix won’t get any credit on the stat sheet, but he made the play that held Murray to a two-yard gain. When 335-pound guard Gabe Jackson pulled and headed his way, Clinton-Dix attacked and met him about two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Clinton-Dix stayed low so that if he’d had to, he could have cut Jackson’s legs out and left the two in a pile at that spot. Jackson instead came low too. Either way, the damage was done.

Murray had to stop momentarily because he didn’t have room to bounce the run outside. That allowed outside linebacker Nick Perry to chase down Murray from the backside and drop him for only a two-yard gain. That left the Raiders in second and long rather than second and short. That’s a tough, physical and instinctive safety working the edge of the defense.

Compare that with undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice, who has flashed talent enough in camp that he’s competing for one of the final spots on the 53-man roster.

On a run with 9:32 left in the second quarter, Brice likewise lined up in the box as an extra run defender in the nickel, and Murray took the handoff right up the middle. But instead of attacking the line, Brice waited a beat or two, then moved in and hit Murray after a four-yard gain.

The difference between the two safeties – a third-year pro who’s on the rise, and an undrafted rookie battling for a roster spot – is that Clinton-Dix read the run quickly and attacked with a physical mindset, whereas Brice hesitated and filled late.

Rollins, like Clinton-Dix, didn’t intercept any passes but also made a couple of plays that helped get the Packers’ defense off the field.

On one, a second-and-eight late in the first quarter, the Raiders threw a clear-out hitch to gifted second-year receiver Amari Cooper in hopes he could make a big run after the catch. When Cooper caught the ball there were about seven yards between him and Rollins, and lots of green field beyond that. But Rollins stayed square, kept his feet moving and pushed Cooper out of bounds for a one-yard gain. So instead of a big play or even a third-and-short, the Raiders had third and seven, failed to convert on a throw downfield and kicked a field goal rather than moving the ball into the red zone.

Later, near the end of the second quarter, Rollins played a deep ball to 6-foot-4 Andrew Holmes just as you’d draw it up. Rollins squeezed Holmes to the sideline as they ran down field and took away any angle for Holmes to get to the pass in-bounds. The throw was incomplete.

Randall, on the other hand, stood out against the Raiders not for subtleties in his game but for an eye-catching turnover play. His leaping, falling-back interception against Cooper on a deep route showed springy athleticism and tremendous ball skills. Those are the kind of plays that can change games.

Hundley’s debut

Brett Hundley played only 20 snaps in his 2016 preseason debut before re-injuring his left ankle, but in that short stint the second-year quarterback looked capable of backing up Aaron Rodgers this season.

On his first two plays of the game, bootlegs to the left and then right, Hundley made convincing play-action fakes to Eddie Lacy by extending the ball with one hand and then not peeking too early to find his passing target. The defense bit hard on both, which opened throws to fullback Aaron Ripkowski (one caught, one dropped).

And on the play Hundley aggravated his injury, he used his eyes to hold safety Nate Allen in the middle of the field just long enough that Allen was too late to help on a 31-yard, back-shoulder completion along the sideline to Davante Adams.

The game is slowing down for Hundley, and he's paying more attention to the little things rather than worrying about the snap and doing only the basics. That’s also shown up in practices with his new-found ability to induce free plays by drawing the defense offsides, a la Rodgers. Hundley didn’t have any of those Thursday night, though.

Extra points

» Ripkowski blocked better against Oakland after a shaky performance the week before against Cleveland. On James Starks’ 24-yard run early in the third quarter, Ripkowski not only met linebacker Ben Heeney in the hole, he pushed Heeney back about a yard, which gave Starks just enough of a crease to get into the secondary.

» John Crockett and undrafted rookie Brandon Burks are in a good battle for the No. 3 running back job, with Crockett getting the better of it against Oakland. Early in the third quarter he picked up 10 yards by keeping his feet going on a play when it initially looked like there was nothing there, and later he showed the ability to get low and run behind his pads while powering to a 10-yard touchdown. Burks whiffed on a chip block on All-Pro Khalil Mack, which helped Mack beat rookie left tackle Jason Spriggs around the left edge for a sack.

— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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