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Fate of Packers’ Season May Hinge on CB Play

It has been a wildly up-and-down season for the Packers' cornerback group. Sam Shields' season-long injury has stressed the Packers' pass defense, which still looks like it’s trying to find ways to survive.

Dom Capers values opponent passer rating as a tool for how well his defense is playing. So, what does that number say for this year’s unit?
   
The Green Bay Packers, with just one game remaining in the 2016 regular season, have allowed a rating of 95.9, the same as 2013. That was the highest passer rating allowed since Capers took over as defensive coordinator. Since 2009, his defenses have ranked among the NFL’s best with a much more impressive 78.8.
   
Before the Packers intercepted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson five times on Dec. 11, their opponent passer rating stood at 102.1, third-worst in the league. At the time, Packers cornerbacks had just one interception and the pass coverage had been and remains wildly inconsistent.
   
Packers coach Mike McCarthy twice this week has offered some explanation for the challenges at cornerback.

“That’s the group that’s probably suffered the most about preparing and practicing and then you get to the game and they’re all playing different positions,” he said on Wednesday.

“I definitely feel we are getting better in the secondary and, particularly, at the corner position. I think some continuity through the practice week is really the best thing we can do moving forward because that’s what’s going to help us.”
   
Cornerback Sam Shields’ concussion back in Week 1 at Jacksonville – which has held him out the entire season – has probably impacted the Packers’ defense more than any other injury. Without a true cover corner with the speed to make up for mistakes and to stay with top-flight receivers, Capers has tried to mix coverages and techniques to make up for deficiencies. One week, Packers cornerbacks have played off at the line of scrimmage and another they have played press. One week man coverage is more prevalent and another zone coverage takes precedent.

The Packers have dropped to 29th in the league in pass defense. They have never been better than 15th this season in a category that, respectfully, embodies more than just cornerback play. But for every encouraging performance against a top receiver -- Odell Beckham had five catches for 56 yards and Julio Jones just 3 for 29 -- there seems to be twice as many embarrassing ones against second-tier guys. Last Saturday, the Vikings’ Adam Thielen posted a career-high 12 catches for 202 yards and two touchdowns. A game prior, the Bears’ Cameron Meredith and Deonte Thompson both went over 100 yards receiving. The Redskins’ Pierre Garcon caught six passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. And the Lions’ Marvin Jones, back on Sept. 25, caught six passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns.

The Packers have given up 4,256 passing yards at 8.03 yards per pass attempt. The 308.3 yards per game over the last three games is worst in the league.

Not counting Shields, injuries and youth in the secondary have been a troublesome combination. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said that at times this season he has asked Micah Hyde to come into his meeting room just to have a veteran in there to ask good questions. Hyde, in his fourth season, is listed as a safety but has played the nickel cornerback spot, too, out of necessity.

Damarious Randall was benched for poor performance two games ago at Chicago. He has missed six games this season with a groin injury and was almost a scratch last Sunday against the Vikings with a shoulder problem. He only played because LaDarius Gunter hurt his elbow in the second quarter and did not return to the game (both Randall and Gunter were full participants in practice Wednesday).
   
Quinten Rollins was inactive for three games (groin) this season and Demitri Goodson missed four games due to a league suspension before being placed on injured reserve after a gruesome leg injury suffered at Washington.
   
The jump in development that the Packers like to see from their second-year players has been closer to a dive with the cornerback group. Errors have been more of the physical and technique variety than mental. Gunter, who hardly played at all on defense in 2015 as an undrafted free agent, has been as susceptible to big plays as any of the others, though McCarthy singled him out this week as the probably the team’s highest-graded corner. He is the only corner to play in every game leads the team with 13 passes defended.
   
The Packers have little else to turn to on the roster. Undrafted rookie Makinton Dorleant came off injured reserve on Dec. 3 but has played just five defensive snaps. Fellow undrafted rookie Josh Hawkins, primarily a special teams player, has played just eight defensive snaps all season. Hawkins inexplicably gave up a 73-yard touchdown just before halftime to Jones in the first meeting of the season with the Lions when he stumbled, failed to locate the ball, and then missed a tackle.
   
In a game the Packers led 31-3 in the second quarter, Matthew Stafford threw for 385 yards and three touchdowns, good for a 112.3 passer rating, the best in 12 career games against the Packers. Randall had an interception that day that was more like a forced fumble when he ripped the ball out of tight end Eric Ebron’s hands. But other than that, Gunter is still looking for his first interception of the season and Rollins got his only pick off a tip from Gunter in the end zone against the Seahawks.
   
The Seahawks’ mistakes contributed to opening the flood gates for the Packers’ recent takeaway binge. Remarkably, the Packers are plus-12 in turnover ratio the past three games. McCarthy’s preaching over the past month seems to be paying off.

“We’ve got to get ourselves in position. That’s the way we train,” he said. “The instincts, the awareness, and the footwork, I think our guys have always done a very good job. It’s an emphasis. It’s part of our daily training but I think our execution has been much better.”

The Packers have always feasted on interceptions to make up for the yardage they have given up under Capers. But slowly, one-by-one, their playmakers on the back end have departed. In 2011, it was safety Nick Collins to eventual injury retirement. Defensive back Charles Woodson was released after the 2012 season. Cornerback Tramon Williams signed a lucrative free agent deal with the Cleveland Browns following the 2014 season. And the NFL league-leader in interceptions in 2016, Casey Hayward, signed with the San Diego Chargers this past offseason.

Losing quality playmakers in the secondary looks like it has finally caught up with the Packers. As much as Clinton-Dix, a Pro Bowl safety this season, has tried to make up for it (five interceptions), the cornerback position has been sorely lacking and might be an area of focus in the off-season with Shields’ uncertain future.

Perhaps that is why Capers gave such an unconvincing response Monday when asked if his pass defense is good enough for the NFC North title game and a gunslinger like Stafford, let alone other top quarterbacks potentially in the postseason.

“I hope so,” said Capers. “I think it’s a combination of coverage, pressure. So I’ve seen us at times play good pass defense, so I’m confident that whoever we play against, we’ve got to do a good job of if we’re playing against a good quarterback, you’ve got to disrupt their rhythm. All of these good quarterbacks in the league, if they get in a rhythm and a groove, they’re tough. Defensively, you’ve got to mix the coverage and the pressure.”


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