The closing acts to Tramon Williams' season will ruin an otherwise strong body of work.
Williams had a miserable game in the finale at Minnesota. With the Vikings' terrible stable of receivers, it was as if Williams figured he could dominate without being fully prepared. He was wrong. Michael Crabtree dominated their one-on-one matchup in the divisional game. In fairness, Williams' coverage wasn't bad for much of the game but Colin Kaepernick played the game of his life and Crabtree is finally playing to the standard expected for a former 10th pick of the draft.
The numbers over the span of the season, however, point to Williams having a quality year after struggling throughout 2011. Lined up mostly against the opponent's No. 1 receiver, Williams allowed a passer rating of 74.3 and 53.5 percent completions. Those numbers ranked 17th and 16th, respectively, among the 71 cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of the snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Moreover, Williams ranked seventh in passes defensed-to-touchdowns allowed, with 14 breakups against just two touchdowns.
However, his only two interceptions came against Chicago in Week 2 — a byproduct of playing more press coverage rather than getting to read and react in zone. That's a big drop-off after picking off 19 passes in the previous four seasons. Plus, he earned a reputation of being soft against the run.
"To say that I'm disappointed, no, because I know what he did week-in and week-out and what we ask him to do," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "Does he feel like he can play better in certain situations? I'm sure he does. But I know the positions we put him in, and we put him in some difficult positions that other people aren't asked to be put in."
Rest of the depth chart
The depth is the envy of most — if not all — of the league.
If he can eliminate the occasional, costly mental lapses, Sam Shields will join the conversation as one of the league's top corners. He finished sixth in the league with 47.7 percent completions. He intercepted three passes in 10 games (eight starts) and had a pick-six in the playoffs. Entering camp, there were questions about his willingness to tackle. Whitt called Shields the most physical tackler on the unit, and could point to open-field tackles on Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson for evidence.
Casey Hayward was drafted to eventually take Charles Woodson's role as the nickel defender. The future started this season, with Woodson out with a broken collarbone. Hayward was excellent with a team-high six interceptions and league-best 31.1 passer rating against. His six interceptions and no touchdowns allowed was best in the league. He'll need to consistently tackle better and play more physically if he wants to truly be in the mold of Woodson. An offseason in the strength program should help.
Davon House went from a starter to afterthought due to a shoulder injury sustained in the preseason and injured again in the finale at Minnesota. He allowed 51.1 percent completions in nine games (five starts). He's got the length, strong hands and skills to be a major contributor.
B: The name of the game is keeping the ball out of receivers' hands. The Packers' corners did just that. Williams' 53.5 percent completions was the worst rate of the top four corners. When reducing the playing time minimum to 25 percent to get House in the mix, ProFootballFocus.com ranked 113 cornerbacks. Green Bay's top four corners ranked third (Hayward), ninth (Shields), 15th (House) and 24th (Williams) in completion percentage. No other team even had two corners ranked in the top 25. Combined, they allowed 52.3 percent completions. On the other hand, this is a highly skilled unit but it's not highly physical. Other than Hayward, the corners didn't make enough game-changing plays, and too many third-and-long conversions were allowed.
Hayward is under contract through 2015, and Williams and House are through 2014. Sam Shields just finished his three-year rookie contract and will be a restricted free agent. Given Shields' strong play as a rookie and his outstanding bounce-back season this year, the Packers might have to give him the first-round tender, which will be $2.879 million, according to NFL Network's Albert Breer. Over the last four offseasons, only one restricted free agent has changed hands and Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace didn't attract a bit of interest, so Shields' future in Green Bay is secure.
On the field, the strong performances turned in by Shields and Hayward could change the thinking of Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers on who matches up with who.
"What I have to ask is," Whitt said, "‘Is Sam to the point where he can handle those difficult matchups? Is Casey to the poit where he can get those difficult matchups and balance this thing out?' Now, (Williams') play will look more like 2010 because he's not in all those critical situations that he was the past two years."
The Packers, in general, and the cornerbacks, in particular, must get more physical. If offenses can't beat them through the air, they'll try to beat them with force.
Whitt said no one's job is safe. That's why Jarrett Bush got the start in Week 1, with the coaches waiting for Shields to prove he deserved his job back. And that's why past performances will have nothing to do with who lines up next season.
"I believe in not allowing anybody to be comfortable," Whitt said, echoing what he's said all year. "We don't work in a business that you can get comfortable and so the guys, we'll always say, their play will dictate who runs through the tunnel. The guys that play the best will play — that practice the best, that have the best tests. We're about winning championships, and we fell short. And that's our charge. We're going ot put the guys out there that are doing the best. If it's a different guy each week, that's what it will be. We're going to do that."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.