State of the Packers: Defense

Through two weeks of training camp, we take a look at how the roster battles are shaping up on defense. Depth is a strength at linebacker, safety and cornerback but injuries are an issue on the defensive line.

Aaron Rodgers doesn’t expect to play long and the defense will play with a double dose of vanilla when the Green Bay Packers kick off the preseason at Tennessee. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing at stake. Here’s what to look for, by position, on defense.

Defensive line: Is Datone Jones ready to start and be an every-down defender? Last year’s first-round pick has lined up with the No. 1 defense since Day 1 of the offseason. He figures to be an asset as a pass rusher, but is he big enough, strong enough and tough enough to slug it out play after play against a physical running game? The reviews have been mixed through two weeks of camp, with Jones playing better in Week 1 of camp than in Week 2. “Datone’s been the same guy since he got here, and that’s a hard-worker, humble kid, who wants to be the best,” fellow defensive lineman Mike Daniels said.

With Letroy Guion (hamstring) and Jerel Worthy (back) still on the PUP list, there’s an opening for one of the young defensive linemen to earn a spot behind Raji, Daniels, Jones, Josh Boyd and rookie Khyri Thornton. Big Mike Pennel and athletic Carlos Gray, a pair of undrafted rookies, have flashed at times and disappeared at others. Pennel is showing why he was a junior college All-American before getting bounced from Arizona State, while Gray is demonstrating why he bet on himself as an early entrant after a ho-hum career at NC State.

Inside linebackers: In terms of being around the ball and delivering a blow, Jamari Lattimore (Brad Jones’ backup) and Sam Barrington (A.J. Hawk’s backup) have been the team’s most impressive players at the position. Can they do it in the games consistently enough to merit consideration as a starter?

“Sam Barrington has come along, Jamari Lattimore has shown that he can step in and play” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “The development of those guys and what we’ve been able to accomplish so far is very pleasing. We’ve got to continue in the same direction with everybody. From who plays, that will be sorted out later on.”

Outside linebackers: This might be the team’s deepest position, with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Carl Bradford having secured roster spots. Nate Palmer, a sixth-round pick last year who did almost nothing as a rookie, has elevated his play. He’s done well in a few matchups against Bryan Bulaga in the one-on-one drills. Andy Mulumba, an undrafted free agent last year, brings toughness against the run. And undrafted rookie Jayrone Elliott has been a major surprise as he’s picked up steam during the second week of camp.

“He’s had a great offseason,” Moss said. “He’s had a great approach, he’s had a chance to catch his breath. There was so much thrown on his plate early last year, now he’s had the time to absorb the scheme and I think you’re seeing a guy that’s steadily improving. Nate brings a lot to the table. He plays awfully hard. He’s very competitive, and he’s shown a lot so far. He’s had a great camp so far.”

Cornerbacks: Position coach Joe Whitt promised a battle and that’s exactly what it’s been. That’s illustrated with Casey Hayward. Ultimately, he likely will end up playing the nickel (slot) position. However, in the dime defense, Whitt frequently has lined up with Shields and Davon House outside and Williams and Micah Hyde in the slots.

Williams, Shields, Hayward and House are the top four corners, with Jarrett Bush a pretty safe bet as the fifth player in the group. Will they keep six? That depends on whether Jumal Rolle, Antonio Dennard or sixth-round pick Demetri Goodson earn a job during these preseason games. So far, neither has taken a bold step in that direction.

Safeties: Morgan Burnett, who will miss the Tennessee game with an oblique strain, remains the favorite to start at one of the safety positions. However, position coach Darren Perry said “anything’s possible” when asked if Hyde and first-round pick HaHa Clinton-Dix might wind up being his starting pair. It was an interesting answer given Perry’s loyalty to Burnett during a disappointing 2013.

Regardless, Burnett’s absence should help Perry sort out the battle between Hyde and Clinton-Dix. With both on the field at the same time, it will be more of an apples-to-apples comparison as both players will face the Titans’ starters and work behind Green Bay’s top defense.

“Both those guys are good football players,” Perry said of Hyde and Clinton-Dix. “And we’re just trying to find a way to get our best guys on the field and give them a chance where they can go out there and showcase their skill set, and that’s why these next few games will be so important. Nothing is etched in stone. We’ve played around with some combinations out there, and they’ll determine it by how they play.”

A position of weakness last season, safety appears to a position of – if not strength, then at least depth. Sean Richardson, as McCarthy put it, is having a “hell of a training camp.” Not only is he physical, but he’s got two interceptions and generally looked better in coverage than he did last season, when he was returning from spinal-fusion surgery that sidelined him for 12 months. Chris Banjo has flashed, as well, and is a good special-teams player.


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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