Make Big Plays (But Don’t Allow Them)

That's the mission for the Packers, with cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt counting on stiff competition to cure what ailed the secondary last season.

Wednesday’s practice featured a rare feat: an interception by a cornerback.

The Green Bay Packers are the kings of the interception during Dom Capers’ first five seasons as defensive coordinator, but big plays had been few and far between during training camp. On Wednesday, the defense picked off three passes — one by safety Sean Richardson, one by outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard and one by cornerback Tramon Williams. The cornerbacks unofficially have intercepted only four passes during 11-on-11 periods in camp, with Jarrett Bush leading the way with two.

Under cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, the Packers’ corners have more interceptions than any group in the league. So, the lack of big plays by his unit is noteworthy. Whitt, however, is happy with the direction of his group.

“What I’ve been more pleased with is the number of explosives are way, way down,” Whitt said. “We’re going to get interceptions; I’m not worried about interceptions. If we can lower the number of explosives and don’t have mental mistakes, we’re going to be a high-level defense. That’s what we have to be, that’s what we have to focus on. When I take the five-year stats of our defense in the pass game, that’s the area — it’s not interceptions, it’s not completions. They don’t complete balls on us — we’re like fourth (in completion percentage) and interceptions we’re first. It’s not those things. It’s we’re giving up too many explosives. That’s what we have to clear up. That’s what we’re focusing on and the men have done a great job. They’re on the same page. This is as close of a unit as we’ve had.”

During Capers’ first five seasons, the Packers rank 28th in the league with an average of 55.0 completions allowed of at least 20 yards. Green Bay tied for 28th last season with 61 completions of 20-plus yards and was 31st in 2011 with 71 completions of 20-plus yards.

In some ways, those numbers are misleading. Teams like Green Bay, which frequently are ahead in the second half, are going to face a lot of offenses in throw-it-every-play mode. That was especially true in 2011, when the Packers generally were ahead by wide margins and slacked off in allowing a bunch of garbage-time yardage.

Still, as Capers is quick to point out, the surest way to have a successful defense is to make the offense work for its yardage. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the offense’s odds of scoring are better with a 20-yard gain than without one.

To that end, Whitt is counting on intense competition to solidify his group. While Williams and Sam Shields have taken every first-team rep and Casey Hayward has lined up as the nickel throughout training camp, the dime package has been a revolving door. Sometimes, it’s Davon House and Sam Shields outside with Williams and Micah Hyde inside. Other times, it’s some combination of Shields, Williams or House outside with Hayward, Hyde or Jarrett Bush inside.

“The best ones are going to be out there,” Whitt said. “We’re going to give those four guys the opportunity and JB’s making a push to be in the opportunity, too, so that makes five. But we’ve been going with status quo with how we did it in OTAs and the rotation that you see is going to stay the same until after this game, and then you might see a different one. I’m going to let those guys decide by their play who’s going to be the ones out there. I told them if I have to make the decision, I’m going to go with the guys that I have history with, so they better do what they have to do to change it.”

The depth has heightened the competition, Whitt said.

“Like I said today, if one individual’s not going to do it a certain way, that’s fine,” Whitt said. “I’m not going to yell. I’m just going to give the next guy a chance. They understand that, so I don’t have to do much yelling. It’s really detailing (their work). This has been as focused a group as we’ve had for the simple fact that they know there’s competition in every aspect — who’s going to be the starters, who’s going to make the team, who’s going to make the practice squad. They know there’s competition on every level. Competition, that brings out the best in everybody because everybody wants to be in the best position.”

However it shakes out, Whitt and Capers know that the pass defense must simply improve and play to expectations. The Packers allowed 61.6 percent completions last season, compared with 54.4 percent in 2009, 56.2 percent in 2010, 61.2 percent in 2011 and 55.1 percent in 2012. The Packers allowed 6.8 yards per passing attempt in 2013, compared with 5.6 in 2009, 5.4 in 2010, 7.2 in 2011 and 5.7 in 2012.

That’s simply not good enough considering the quality that exists on the depth chart.

“My main concern is playing high-level defense and winning football games,” Whitt said. “It doesn’t matter how many good players we have at a certain position. If we’re 25th in pass defense, we’ve got to be better than that. We’ve got to be a complete unit and do what we have to do to make the unit better. So, that’s the only thing I’m concerned about, and I have to make sure I choose the right men to go out there and get that done.”


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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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