Mike McCarthy's offseason call for a championship defense could have had a couple of different meanings.
Technically, any team that wins the Super Bowl has a championship defense. And on that point, the Packers’ defense last year (No. 15 in yards and No. 12 in points) wasn’t the problem. For a Green Bay Packers team that has Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and is built around its offense, that should be good enough to give it a chance.
On the other side, McCarthy might have meant having a defense that dominated like the Denver Broncos' did last season. But general manager Ted Thompson hasn’t put enough into that side of the ball to think anything like that will happen in 2016.
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So my interpretation is that McCarthy is looking for a defense that can win a game on the rare days the points aren't coming and that will hold up against a good team with the game on the line. A defense that might not be the league’s best but ranks in or near the top five in scoring and yards.
And to become that, the Packers need a couple of players to join Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Daniels as guys who change games.
That’s what they had in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl with a defense that ranked No. 5 in yards and No. 2 in points. Charles Woodson (nickel cornerback), Matthews (outside pass rusher) and Nick Collins (safety) were premier players at their positions. For the second half of that season, B.J. Raji was borderline dominant at nose tackle, and Tramon Williams was one of best cornerbacks in the league.
So do the Packers have a couple of players who can become difference makers and elevate the level of their defense this year?
That, none of us knows. We’ll find out in the real games.
But for my money, the handful of players with the best shot are Sam Shields, Damarious Randall, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kenny Clark.
That doesn’t mean they’re the only ones. Second-year cornerback Quinten Rollins or rookie inside linebacker Blake Martinez could emerge as well. And there’s also the chance no one will take that big step, or that Peppers (36) could decline with age and wear.
Either way, difference makers are hard to find, and here’s a quick look why I think a player or two from among Shields, Randall, Clinton-Dix and Clark has the best chance:
Shields: He has flirted with being a difference maker and is a legit No. 1 cornerback but needs more takeaways (five in the last two seasons combined) to get over the hump. He turns 28 in December, so he’s about at the peak of his powers.
Randall: He and Rollins, Thompson’s first two picks in last year’s draft, have been splitting most of the time at nickel cornerback with the No. 1 defense, with one usually in the slot and the other outside opposite Shields.
That nickel corner — the Packers’ name for the position is “star” — is a key playmaker in coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme. Woodson was exceptional there because of his ability to play cat-and-mouse with the quarterback as a blitzer and cover man. He won NFL defensive player of the year in that role in 2009, as did Pro Football Hall of Famer Rod Woodson in 1993 playing for Capers with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Judging by Randall’s and Rollins’ sharing of snaps in camp, Capers very well might use both in that role, depending on opponent and game plan. Both are talented — Randall is springier, Rollins more physical — and either could emerge as a playmaker. Maybe both will. Or maybe neither.
But at this point, I’d give Randall the better chance to be a game changer. He’s a little more quick-twitch as an athlete and is ultra-confident.
“That’s part of the reason that they drafted me, because I’m a versatile guy,” he said this week of the nickel position. “In college, that’s one of the things that I did; used to blitz off the edge, used to play coverage up in the slot. That’s just some of the things I used to do. Adding that versatility to our defense is going to make us that much more dangerous.”
Clinton-Dix: He’s not as explosive as Collins — Collins ran the 40 in 4.36 seconds at the 2005 scouting combine, Clinton-Dix ran 4.58 two years ago — so he doesn’t have as much upside.
But Clinton-Dix’s intangibles give him a chance to be a difference maker. He’s an instinctive young (23) player whose tackling and coverage range improved noticeably from his first season to his second. By all accounts he loves the game, so he’s all-in. The question is how far his physical talent can take him.
Clark: Thompson’s first-round pick hasn’t shown as explosive a first step as Raji did early in his career, but Clark has demonstrated why he was a first-round prospect. He has been hard to move in the run game and flashed some inside pass-rush talent.
Clark’s snaps probably will be harder to come by than the others on this list because on more obvious passing downs the Packers’ primary inside rushers probably will be Peppers and Daniels. But Clark should be in the regular rotation enough to show whether he’s a disrupter against the run or pass, and thus warrants more playing time.