With one practice remaining in training camp and one game remaining in the preseason, Anthony Smith has thrust himself into contention to start at safety opposite Nick Collins.
Smith, who intercepted passes against Cleveland and Arizona and dropped a shot for one against Buffalo, has launched a challenge for Atari Bigby's starting position.
"I still think certain areas, we've got competition still open," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said after Monday's practice. "So, I think those guys have competed very well. I think they're both good football players."
Bigby and Smith entered training camp with a relatively balanced ledger.
Bigby was the big-play, hard-hitting safety who blossomed into a starring role as the Packers surged into the NFC championship game in 2007. Smith was the promise-filled former third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers who intercepted four passes while starting 14 games in 2006 and 2007.
On the other hand, was Bigby a one-year wonder? Or were injuries to his ankle, hamstring and shoulder the sole reason for him going from five interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in 2007 to one interception and no forced fumbles or recoveries last season? And was Smith the third-round disappointment who found himself deactivated for the Steelers' run to the championship, or was he simply a talented player who needed a fresh start — potentially finding it here with a budget-priced two-year contract in free agency?
"He's always been a guy who can make plays on the ball," said safeties coach Darren Perry, who was Smith's position coach during his rookie season of 2006. "The first (two) game(s) he started, he had two interceptions. His thing is consistency and doing it for however many snaps you ask him to do it. You know he's got playmaking ability. That's obvious. He's shown that. But to be consistent in this league is something you've got to have at that position. That's the only thing that you see in him that you want to make sure that you're comfortable with."
That comfort level is why the starting job isn't a cut-and-dried case in Smith's favor. The Packers have seen Bigby be a difference-maker. Those nine turnover-producing plays of 2007 were the most by a Packers safety since Darren Sharper's nine (all interceptions) in 2000. And while he's a weak link on pass defense by sometimes being late in coverage and being unable to match up with athletic tight ends like Jermichael Finley, he's been a ballhawk and physical presence that this defense needs.
"Atari's been steady. I know he wants to make more plays, but sometimes, you can only do what the system allows you to do at times," Perry said in echoing comments from Capers. "I think the one thing you can't do as a safety is go sticking your nose where it doesn't belong, because as soon as you do that, you're probably going to end up giving up a big play."
Nonetheless, it's hard to ignore the preseason stats. In three games, Bigby has two tackles while Smith has 10 tackles, five passes defensed, two interceptions and a sack.
"Just really having a knack for being around the ball," said Smith, who picked off Aaron Rodgers on Monday. "It's a mind-set of always getting to the ball, no matter what. When you're always around the ball, sometimes it will fall in your lap. Sometimes, you've got to go make a play."
That going and making a play, however, can backfire on occasion. It worked when he made a great read on veteran quarterback Kurt Warner and made an impressive interception against the Cardinals on Friday. His overaggressiveness, however, resulted in a pair of big plays as the Cardinals rallied in the second half. It's the same problem that led to his benching in Pittsburgh late in 2007 and kept him from getting back into the lineup last season.
"The Pittsburgh thing, it was a learning experience," Smith said. "I was pretty much in the same position of competing for the starting job. It's just go out every day and put your work in and everything else is up to the coaches."
Smith, however, is in position to start for three reasons. First and foremost is Bigby's ankle injury, which required surgery that kept him out of all of the offseason practices. Second is his obvious nose for the ball. And third is his familiarity with the scheme after three years in Pittsburgh. The strengths and weaknesses of the defense, and where his help is located, are second nature.
"You don't want to go anywhere seeing yourself as a backup," Smith said. "I just came out here and they told me I would compete for the starting job, and that's what I'm here to do. Just display my skills and pretty much just put it all out there."
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