Is the Green Bay Packers’ defensive backfield No. 1 in the NFL?
The last time we saw Green Bay’s defensive backfield in action, we witnessed Damarious Randall failing to pick up Larry Fitzgerald on a crossing route that turned into a 75-yard catch-and-run that dealt a fatal blow to the Green and Gold’s mission to claim Super Bowl 50. On that same play both Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett swung and missed in their futile attempts of bringing down the Cardinals wideout on the first play of overtime.
What was lost in the aftermath of the Packers calamitous meltdown during the extra session of their riveting, edge-of-your-seat playoff battle versus Arizona was the fact that Burnett, Shields and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were among the top performers (according to Pro Football Focus) of the ill-fated road game.
Luck wasn’t on their side that evening with Shields dropping a sure interception at his own 3-yard line late in the fourth quarter that would have probably put a ribbon on a victory for the boys from Packers News. Instead, three plays later, Randall deflected an end-zone toss intended for Fitzgerald that fortuitously landed in the waiting arms of Michael Floyd for a touchdown.
If you believe the old adage of most ball games coming down to one or two plays, those two were certainly it right there.
But now that the chapter of the 2015 season has been rubber stamped and sealed shut, the future looks especially bright for Green Bay’s backfield defenders when you consider how young this unit is with Shields serving as the elder statesman of the group at the ripe old age of 28.
For the season, the Packers ranked sixth overall versus the pass along with allowing the fourth lowest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks (58.3) and only the Tennessee Titans allowed fewer receptions (319 vs 321).
What makes these numbers even more remarkable than they appear on paper is that the results were accomplished with two rookies playing prominent roles along the last line of defense.
In fact, Randle started nine games after taking over as a starting cornerback in Week 5. And while the 2015 first-round pick made his share of mental errors, he continually improved demonstrating sharp instincts and confidence beyond his years. In addition to being tied for the team lead in interceptions (3), the quick study was also named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month for November.
While Randall was a tough act to follow, fellow rookie, Quinten Rollins, acquitted himself quite well by starting four of the 14 games he played in and posting the best passer rating allowed by a rookie cornerbacks with 200-plus snaps, as noted by PFF. The Miami of Ohio product’s physicality, fluid movement skills and leaping ability can put him on the fast track of becoming a game changer opposing teams will need to account for.
The forgotten rookie of the group was the long-armed Ladarius Gunter, who was in on nine snaps all season before stepping in and playing a key role in Green Bay’s wild-card round win over the Redskins. Where some evaluators saw a Cover-2 (code word for slow) corner with athletic limitations, GM Ted Thompson focused on the lanky defensive back’s technique in press-man coverage as a boundary defender who could potentially neutralize taller receivers.
Although the aforementioned rookies deserve ample credit for their successful transitions into the pros, kudos are in order for a veteran core formed by Shields, Burnett, Micah Hyde and Clinton-Dix who have created a winning environment marked by toughness, consistency and attention to detail.
As the graybeard of the bunch, Shields has made strides in turning himself from a cover specialist who relies solely on speed to one who wins with timing, physicality and body positioning. Thompson’s decision to reward the former wide receiver with a four-year $39-million contract in 2014 might have cost him the opportunity of retaining Tramon Williams and Davon House, but there are no regrets as Shields has earned his keep with his press-man skills in one-on-one matchups.
Similarly, the starting safety duo of Burnett and Clinton-Dix are quietly becoming the league’s best one-two punch at their position.
Burnett’s PFF score of 88.5 puts him third overall among NFL safeties. His dual ability of laying the wood in the ground game along with being able to run with most running backs and tight ends in coverage make him and Clinton-Dix interchangeable at both the free and strong safety spots.
Entering his seventh year wearing the green and gold, Burnett is a student of the game, who has steadily improved from a mistake-prone defender to a team leader who missed all of eight tackles last season and led the team in tackles per snap by recording one every 9.3 snaps. The only thing that stands in his way is health considering the fact that he’s missed nine games over the past three years.
The 23-year-old Clinton Dix, on the other hand, has developed at an astounding pace. He too ranked among the top safeties in 2015 with a PFF rating of 85.2 placing him eighth in that group.
In his second professional season, the rangy defensive back exhibited greater recognition skills that allowed him to play a beat faster. The result was Clinton-Dix often taking on blockers directly and blowing up plays in the opposing backfield (see the Thursday night game versus the Lions). In total, he missed only nine tackles along with the added dimension of making an impact as a blitzer.
Hyde isn’t as physically talented as Clinton-Dix, but he’s versatile in that he can play safety and slot corner against quicker receivers and tight ends as well, not to mention his ability as a return specialist.
The others include Chris Banjo, a special teams demon who can slip blocks, make textbook tackles and contribute in coverage if needed. Demetri Goodson is still a work in progress in his transition from being primarily a college basketball player at Gonzaga before transferring to Baylor to strap on the shoulder pads.
Overall, Green Bay’s youth and depth in the secondary is a primary reason why fans of the organization should be enthusiastic about what lies ahead. The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks recently proved that defense can still indeed win championships and there’s reason to believe that Mike McCarthy’s crew can be latest team to verify that theory.
The 2016 Packers seemingly have all the components in place to feature the NFL’s top secondary and be the new version of the Seahawks in that regard. But, of course, the first two levels of defense also have to hold up their end of the bargain.