Packers: Safety has become a position of strength
GREEN BAY – Not that long ago, the Green Bay Packers’ safety situation was a mess.
Their three-time Pro Bowl safety, Nick Collins — a player who coach Mike McCarthy believed was en route to a Pro Football Hall of Fame gold jacket — suffered a career-ending neck injury in 2011. Charles Woodson, a likely Pro Football Hall of Famer himself, was unceremoniously dumped in February 2013 — and went on to play three more seasons at safety in Oakland. The starters the Packers trotted out alongside veteran Morgan Burnett during that time — M.D. Jennings, best known for his role in the infamous 2012 “Fail Mary” game in Seattle, and Jerron McMillian, a 2012 fourth-round bust — could most politely be described as “just guys.”
Now those are problems. What the Packers have on their safety depth chart now doesn’t even qualify as that coaching cliché of “a good problem to have,” McCarthy said Tuesday morning — one day after he called the group of Burnett, Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, second-year men Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans and rookie sensation Josh Jones “as fine as a group that I’ve seen in my 20-plus years in this league.”
Because the Packers play their sub packages — nickel or dime groups that employ five or more defensive backs —on more than 80 percent of their defensive game snaps, McCarthy said he thinks there’ll be enough snaps to go around. His defensive philosophy has evolved into something similar to his offensive approach — get your best players on the field, regardless of position — and so far in camp, McCarthy has shown that he believes many of his best defensive players just happen to be safeties.
While the defense has lined up on occasion in a typical 3-4 defense, the vast majority of its 11-on-11 practice snaps have come in a modified defense in which there are three cornerbacks (Davon House and rookie Kevin King outside and Quinten Rollins inside in the slot had been the most frequent threesome, before King missed Tuesday’s practice with a shoulder injury); two safeties (Brice and Clinton-Dix) playing the traditional safety role; and Burnett at inside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers calls it the “Nitro” package.
Jones, who turned heads during organized team activity practices and the June minicamp, has continued to be a playmaker since the pads went on on Saturday — and he’s not even working with the No. 1 defense.
“I think all those guys will have opportunities. (With) the way I foresee or anticipate the offenses are going to go against us and our defense, we’ll be in sub personnel,” McCarthy said before practice. “So yes, I think there’ll be a lot of opportunities to get those guys on the field.”
On Tuesday, for example, the defense opened with three down linemen, Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan at inside linebacker and House and Rollins at corner. That lasted about two snaps before Burnett moved down to linebacker next to Joe Thomas, the team’s dime linebacker last season, Brice took Burnett’s spot at linebacker and Damarious Randall came in as the slot corner.
With so many safeties in the mix, that’s meant fewer snaps for traditional, run-stuffing inside linebackers like Martinez and Ryan, though opponents who are intent on running the ball against the Packers this season would presumably see more traditional defensive looks. Those who want to throw the ball on them, though — especially after last year’s defense finished 31st in the 32-team NFL against the pass — figure to get a lot of the “Nitro” group.
And theoretically, the Packers could get all four of their top safeties on the field if they take Joe Thomas, who lines up alongside Burnett at inside linebacker, off the field and insert Jones, which would give them either six or seven defensive backs, depending on how you classify Burnett.
“In my view of how I approach football, I look at pass rushers, corners and safeties. Those guys are critical to how you scheme your defense,” McCarthy explained. “So the safety position, particularly Morgan, Brice and obviously Josh, they play multiple positions.
“We’ve been playing 80 percent sub defense now for five plus years. So the ability of those guys to play the nickel, the dime, the sub linebacker and free safety, strong safety — that speaks volumes. Morgan does that. We’re not asking Josh and Brice to do as much of that. That body type, that position, I think is critical to the way you need to play defense in today’s NFL.”
Burnett, who is headed into the last year of his contract, seems happy to take one for the team and play a spot where he’ll likely absorb more physical punishment and have fewer opportunities to intercept passes. The Packers experimented with him as a linebacker last season but it appears Burnett will be used there more extensively this year.
Brice, meanwhile, made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent last year with his physical, hard-hitting style and has, according to McCarthy, made the type of Year 2 improvement the coaches demand from young players.
“I’m just coming in doing what I have to do and continue to keep my head down and stay focused,” Brice said. “Just continue to play, try to put in the work, and let the play speak for itself.”
Even though he hasn’t been with the starters, Jones has made perhaps the strongest impression of the bunch. He drew the ire of several offensive players late last week for a hit he put on wide receiver Malachi Dupre, but his defensive teammates love the swagger the second-round pick from North Carolina State plays with. (In fairness, Jones later apologized to Dupre for the hit and admitted he “shouldn’t have done that.”)
“He’s exactly who we thought he was. He comes in with the right attitude, comes on the field with bad intentions,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “He has the right type of attitude that you want on defense. It’s nice to have him here.”
Told of Daniels’ assessment, Jones gave a glimpse into his mentality — “I’m here to work,” Jones said, “I’m not here for all the extra stuff that comes with the NFL” — and said that wherever the coaches find a place for him this season, he’ll take that same approach.
“I’m a football player,” Jones said. “It don’t matter where they line you up. Just play ball. Put the ball down and just play. Obviously, they put me in different packages. To me, it benefits me because I can make more plays and I can help this team out a lot more.”