The Green Bay Packers have seen all three of their rookie cornerbacks flash in the secondary at some point this preseason.
It’s a promising sign for a defense that lost Tramon Williams and Davon House to free agency, but the early returns from Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter haven’t caused the Packers to change their mind about who’ll be working opposite Sam Shields to start the regular season.
Barring injury, that distinction still belongs to fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward.
“He’s my starter, so I’m fine with him,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said.
Hayward earned that opportunity on the backbone of his first three NFL seasons in which he amassed 103 tackles, 28 pass deflections and nine interceptions in his first 35 regular-season games.
Injuries have been an issue for Hayward. A recurring hamstring injury limited him to three games in 2013 and he sat out of this year’s offseason program after undergoing surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.
He’s missed only one practice in training camp, but has been quiet in his 94 preseason snaps. He’s recorded six tackles and one pass deflection in three appearances compared to Randall (four tackles and one interception in two games), Rollins (10 tackles, two deflections) and the undrafted Gunter (five tackles, four deflections, one INT).
Hayward displayed natural ball-hawking ability during his rookie year. His six interceptions placed him in contention for defensive rookie of the year honors. Those big plays have been missing in camp. The closest he came was in Pittsburgh when he batted up a pass that Martavis Bryant then caught.
“I’d like to see more from everybody in the group,” Whitt said. “He hasn’t done anything that makes me not feel confident that he’s going to go out and play a high level of football. Other people might see it differently, but I really don’t care, though. I’m trying to get ready, guys ready for Chicago.”
Hayward will work on the perimeter in the 3-4 base defense and nickel subpackage to start the year assuming incumbent nickel cornerback Micah Hyde checks out from the neck spasms he’s experiencing. In the dime, Hayward will bump inside if Randall or Gunter are playing and could stay outside if Rollins enters.
Whitt knows what his alignment will be in the regular-season opener in Chicago on Sept. 13, but isn’t giving anything away other than he’d feel comfortable playing the three rookies if he needed to.
The Packers moved Shields around in the summer, but he’s been stationed primarily at the right cornerback spot because of his productivity there. Whitt said the Pro Bowl cornerback will match at times this season, so it’s important for him to be comfortable in both spots.
Whitt isn’t sure how much Shields and Hayward will play in Thursday’s preseason finale against New Orleans, giving the three rookies one more chance to show what they can do.
As for Hayward, Whitt is confident the plays will come much like they have in his first three NFL seasons.
“When we get in real games, then we will play at a high level,” Whitt said “I’m confident of that.”
There weren’t many positives for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to extract from how his defense played in the first half in last Saturday’s 39-26 loss to Philadelphia.
Not when you allow 39 points and 325 total yards in the first 30 minutes of any game.
The Packers stayed mostly in their nickel subpackage and were fairly vanilla in their calls, protecting themselves for the regular season. However, Eagles coach Chip Kelly didn’t pull any punches.
Philadelphia came out firing on all cylinders with its no-huddle offense as it has the entire preseason. For Capers, the game served as a reminder of what can happen when you allow a high-octane offense like the Eagles to get momentum rolling in its favor.
“When you’re playing a team like Philly, they’re a very efficient offense,” Capers said. “They’ve got good players. They’ve got a good speed. You’ve got to find a way to break their rhythm. That’s what we weren’t able to do in the first half. They made plays. We really didn’t make any big plays to get the down and distance turned in our favor, and those are always tough.”
“Hopefully that’s a wake-up call to us in terms of in this league, efficient offenses can move that ball up and down the field.”
The one thing Capers takes solace in is the Packers’ run defense, which ranks third in the NFL this preseason. The 75.3 average rushing yards they’ve allowed in three games is tied for third-fewest in the league.
The return of B.J. Raji from a torn right biceps muscle helps, but the maturation of former undrafted free agent Mike Pennel could end up making the biggest difference for the Packers this season.
Pennel (6-4, 332) made the roster on the heels of an impressive camp last year, but wasn’t much of a factor down the stretch. He came back leaner this summer and has proven to be versatile enough to play the three- and five-technique in addition to backing up Raji at nose tackle.
He’s been more disruptive in the trenches this preseason and could give veteran Josh Boyd serious competition for Letroy Guion’s vacated starting spot in the 3-4 base defense at the start of the season.
Behind the defensive front, the inside linebackers also played well against the run. For all the issues inside linebacker Sam Barrington had covering Darren Sproles, he’s an aggressive tackler. Clay Matthews’ quick first step and decisiveness also helps fill gaps as they develop.
The Packers must overcome the early-season loss of Guion, who was suspended last week for the first three games of the season stemming from his February arrest in Starke, Fla., for felony possession of marijuana.
His absence leaves Green Bay to fend off the likes of Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles without one of their veteran run-stuffers. That’s where Pennel could come in handy.
“Some young guys are going to have to step up because our run defense is going to be so important in those first three games – it’s going to be where everything starts,” Capers said. “There can’t be any easing up because Forte and Lynch and Charles are three of the real top backs in the league.”
The Packers haven’t closed the door on the possibility of re-signing Matt Blanchard to their practice squad despite releasing the former UW-Whitewater quarterback on Tuesday.
It’s almost guaranteed the Packers will keep three quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Scott Tolzien and Brett Hundley) on their 53-man roster, but an NFL source indicated the organization hasn’t ruled out bringing back Blanchard if he’s still on the market this weekend.
Blanchard, 26, split third-string reps with Hundley during the offseason program before the rookie fifth-round pick pulled away early in camp. Still, the three-time NCAA Division III national champion displayed good pocket presence and a capable arm since signing with the Packers as a street free agent in April.
He had his best showing late against the Eagles when he completed 8-of-11 passes for 87 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Blanchard has one year of practice-squad eligibility remaining after spending two seasons with Chicago in 2012 and 2013.
It’s rare that NFL teams will keep more than three quarterbacks under contract, but the coaching staff has grown fond of Blanchard. Rodgers mentioned last week how impressed he’s been by how well he has picked up the Packers’ offense.
Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said after Blanchard’s release on Tuesday that he’d be happy to recommend the 6-foot-3, 223-pound quarterback to any team looking for one.
“I’d be willing to call any of my friends in coaching who need a quarterback and highly recommend him because I think he has what it takes,” Van Pelt said. “Just needs a break. He needs to get a chance. It’s a tough situation here when we drafted Brett, obviously. I’ve been in those situations myself. You go and you do your best and hopefully you can put some good stuff on tape and another opportunity arises for him.”
Mitchell Henry ditched his cast just in time for his final audition.
The rookie tight end broke his middle finger on a pass from Scott Tolzien during the sixth practice of training camp. He returned a day later with a protective cast that he utilized in the following nine practices and three preseason games.
Now wearing a plastic splint on the finger, Henry should have a better chance at catching his first pass of the preseason against the Saints.
“It felt real good,” Henry said. “It felt different. I was getting in some three-point stances with my right hand on the left side of the ball, and I was like, ‘Oh, crap, I can put my left hand down now.’”
Henry learned a few things dealing with the injury. He paid greater attention to detail in his blocking, footwork and hand placement. He felt it even helped improve his route-running.
The battle for the Packers’ No. 3 tight end spot is still alive with sixth-round pick Kennard Backman, practice-squad holdover Justin Perillo and Henry all competing for the job.
A positive sign for Henry is special-teams coordinator Ron Zook has been rotating him in the posse of the first-team kickoff return unit throughout camp. Henry says he doesn’t read too much into that, but it’s usually a plus whenever an undrafted rookie takes reps on a starting unit.
Regardless, he’s excited about his final preseason game.
“I might actually catch a pass,” Henry joked.
Another offensive rookie will need to get used to utilizing a club, however. Running back Alonzo Harris wore one during Tuesday's practice after injuring his hand last week.
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