The big plays — for and against — are down as the Green Bay Packers' secondary has taken a giant step forward after last year's debacle.
After setting a dubious league record by yielding 299.8 passing yards per game, the Packers have trimmed that number to a manageable 243.6. That's good for 20th in the league.
The only saving grace last season were the takeaways. After a league-high 31 interceptions last season, however, Green Bay has picked off just 10 passes. Still, that's an acceptable tradeoff as the Packers have slashed the number of explosive gains allowed. Last year, they were 31st in the league with 71 completions of 20-plus yards. This year, they've given up 32, putting them on pace for 57.
Losing Charles Woodson (broken collarbone) was a major blow, but Tramon Williams is having an excellent bounce-back season now that his shoulder is healthy. The depth at cornerback is extraordinary because so many young players have stepped up. That's helped lower opponent completion percentage from 61.2 (20th in league) to 57.1 (sixth). The secondary as a whole defended 67 passes last season. They're on pace for 98 this season.
(Note: All tackle numbers and passes defensed are from the Packers' coaching staff. All other numbers are from ProFootballFocus.com.)
— S Morgan Burnett: If there's one good thing about Woodson's injury, it's that it's forced Burnett (73 tackles, one sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, nine passes defensed) to mature as a player and as a leader.He's on pace for 130 tackles. He had 122 in 20 career games entering the season. About the only thing he hasn't done is intercept a pass. Grade: B.
— CB Tramon Williams: Williams (42 tackles, two interceptions, 15 passes defensed) got by on guts last season with a bum shoulder that wouldn't allow him to play physically or tackle effectively. This season, he's allowed 55.1 percent completions while regularly facing the opponent's No. 1 receiver. More importantly, he went from a league-worst 17.0 yards allowed per completion to a team-best 11.7. Grade: B-plus.
— CB Casey Hayward: Hayward (30 tackles, four interceptions, one forced fumble, 12 passes defensed) not only is all-rookie consideration but should be mentioned as a top candidate for defensive rookie of the year. With no touchdowns allowed, quarterbacks have a miserable 38.3 passer rating when targeting Hayward. Hayward is filling Woodson's role on the defense; a scout last week compared Hayward to Champ Bailey. Grade: B.
— CB Sam Shields: With a new, tougher attitude, Shields (22 tackles, one interception, seven passes defensed) was blossoming into a top cornerback until injuring his shin and ankle against Houston. Shields returned to practice on Monday after missing the last three games. He's allowed two touchdowns: the ridiculous game-ending touchdown at Seattle and a mental breakdown that turned into an 80-yard score against New Orleans. Grade: C-minus.
— CB/S Charles Woodson: Woodson (44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, five passes defensed) was settling into his role as a part-time safety when he broke his collarbone going for an interception late in the win against St. Louis. The sacks came in Week 1 and the interception in Week 2. Grade: C-minus.
— CB Jarrett Bush: Bush (seven tackles on defense and a team-high eight on special teams) opened the season as the dime cornerback. He's barely played on defense since then, other than goal-line situations and as an injury replacement at Houston. His missed tackle against Arizona turned into a touchdown. Grade: D.
— CB Davon House: House, who didn't play a snap on defense as a rookie last year, was on course to be a starter until injuring his shoulder at San Diego in the first preseason game. He's played extensively the last three weeks. House (eight tackles, six passes defensed) gave up a touchdown in garbage time against St. Louis and was burned for a 37-yard gain last week but otherwise has been fine. Grade: C-minus.
— S M.D. Jennings: Jennings (23 tackles, four passes defensed; six tackles on special teams) has gone from centerpiece of the controversial ending at Seattle to part of the answer without Woodson. Playing mainly free safety, Jennings hasn't made any big plays but hasn't allowed any, either. He's rarely out of position and has been a good tackler. Grade: C-minus.
— S Jerron McMillian: McMillian (19 tackles, one interception, nine passes defensed) went from splitting time with Jennings at safety to being mostly a slot cornerback in the dime packages. A physical player with incredible athleticism, McMillian's deflection led to Casey Hayward's interception against Houston. He broke up three passes last week. Grade: C.
— S Sean Richardson: A big, fast rookie, Richardson missed the start of the season with an injured hamstring. He's got three special-teams tackles in three games. Grade: D.
Number to note
6.84: Yards allowed per passing attempt this season, down a yard from last year's 7.83.
CB coach Joe Whitt: "When we get up to press and challenge routes — House gave up the first vertical on a press this year — so when we get up there and press and challenge routes, we've been fine. There's always things that you want to correct but there's nothing I would say sticks out more than anything else."
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.