Sunday, November 23, 2008

Secondary Becomes Primary Threat

It's not often that I find myself standing with my mouth agape, shocked that one of my clever little theories isn't working out the way I thought it would. And yet, it would appear that this year's Packer secondary is indeed proving my "need for a great free safety" rants as little more than a moot point.

I came into this season ready for our secondary to be our biggest area of weakness, and for three reasons:

1) The play of our corners was likely to decline due to age, and after the Giants' playoff game, it appeared Al Harris was already there.

2) Lack of depth: there were no corners ready to take the field if one of our aging starters couldn't make a go of it anymore.

3) The play of the safeties has been a sore point for many years: a collection of run stoppers with poor instinct and coverage skills. Their deficiencies have been minimalized by such strong play from our veteran corners, but if/when they failed, the lack of smart play by the safeties would become glaringly obvious.

So, here we are, ten games into the season, and it is crystal clear that the results have changed. And, when facts change, so do my opinions, with the caveat that, perhaps, I may have been surprised by the strong play.

The stats speak for themselves: the Packers are No. 1 in the NFL in several key defensive categories: interceptions (16), touchdowns by defensive backs (6), completion percentage (51.5) and quarterback rating (59.5).

And why is this? By proving my theories wrong:

1) Charles Woodson is having a Pro Bowl year. While I didn't think he'd be the one to decline this year, he's actually established himself as the veteran leader of the defense, if not the entire team, in the absence of Brett Favre. Tied with Nick Collins for the league lead in interceptions (5), has two sacks, two defensive touchdowns, and is 9th in league in passes defensed.

But the guy I was most worried about was Al Harris, especially after being dressed down by Plaxico Burress in the NFC Championship game. He was his usual steady self to start the season, and after returning from injury, has probably stepped it up even more. He has a troubling high number of pass interference penalties this year, excused by head coach Mike McCarthy as "combat penalties".

But, the lack of passes even thrown Harris's way means that most of the time, he's actually playing the part of the "shutdown corner", something we didn't expect at the beginning of the season.

2) When AJ Hawk made his best, most solid, most punishing hit of the season, it unfortunately came against Al Harris, who injured his spleen and had to miss the rest of that game, followed by the next four and a bye week. It was at this time that I felt that the wheels would come off.

Enter Tramon Williams, who filled in for Harris at secondary and perhaps exceeded Harris's play this year. The stats certainly bear out that, in the four games started by Williams, he had 14 tackles and three interceptions (Harris has no picks this year). He also has ten passes defensed this year, good for a tie for 19th in the league.

There are many reasons to be excited about Williams, who is by far the most exciting nickel back we've had in years. Not only can we pencil him in whenever Woodson or Harris begin to fail, there are those who feel he's ready to take over starting today...a far cry from where I saw our reserve situation before the season started.

3) But the biggest reason for the ascension of this secondary has to be the advent of Nick Collins, a guy in the preseason I predicted to be labeled a bust and to be benched in favor of Aaron Rouse. Collins has been a very athletic player, but has been responsible for many busted coverages and big plays in his previous three seasons, when he was drafted in the second round and immediately placed in a starting role.

But this season, Collins has been a monster. He's backed up his hard-hitting run support with finally playing the ball and taking the right angles in coverage support. The results are clear: a league-leading 5 interceptions, a league leading 230 return yards, a league-leading three defensive touchdowns, and responsible for very few big pass plays this year.

In other words, Collins is playing more like the complete safety that defensive coordinator wants to have in his scheme, in which both safeties are interchangeable in both coverage and run support. Starting with the ill-fated Mark Roman free agency signing in 2005, the Packers have tried to play this interchangeable safety scheme with prototypical strong safeties like Roman, Collins, Bigby, Rouse, often suffering as the coverage skills weren't solid enough. I called for a strong instinctive free safety to be signed, the Eugene Robinson to compliment all of these LeRoy Butlers that we had on the team...a smart quarterback for the defense. Certainly, we can all remember the big pass plays the Packers have given up the past few seasons.

But not this year...the game-changing big pass play has been almost invisible, and this seems to be largely because of how the safeties are playing. It could be that the scheme has shifted this offseason, that the assignments are perhaps simplified, clearer, or more effective.

But, I am growing to believe that Nick Collins has "Javon Walker-itis", a condition with symptoms like freakish athletic ability and disturbingly low Wonderlic scores. It took Javon Walker a couple of seasons before he was able to translate his ability into effective play on the field, because the mental part of the game was harder for him to master (especially when he probably never needed much of a mental game coming up through high school or college).

Collins, who played at Division II Bethune-Cookman, probably had a longer road to hoe on his way to understanding the nuances of the professional game, and it has taken this long for the mental parts of the game (understanding angles, coverage responsibilities, tendancies, positioning) to finally ferment. He's always been a strong, athletic, and physical player, but at the professional level, so is everyone else around him.

So, as a result, the 2008 brand of the secondary appears to be among one of the league best, with the strong likelihood of at least two members going to the Pro Bowl this year. For a 5-5 team that has had as many defensive concerns as the Pack, it is a strong reflection of the great individual efforts we've seen from our secondary this year.

This isn't to say that there isn't still some concern. The other safety spot has been spotty, with last year's media darling, Atari Bigby, spending much of the season injured and nowhere near the playmaker he was last year. Aaron Rouse has also been injured and not quite as effective as last year.

The other reality is that the opposing passing games we've faced aren't exactly world-beaters, either. Of the nine teams we've faced, not one has a passing efficiency rating of above 87.8, or ranks in the top ten passing teams in the NFL.

Limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 59 efficiency rating is great, no matter how you slice it. But, you have to remember that we've faced teams that have an average of 79.8 in efficiency rating anyway.

The interesting part is that tomorrow night's game against the New Orleans Saints will be against a quarterback that is throwing at a 95.4 clip, and Drew Brees will be getting his receiving corps healthy, including pass threat Reggie Bush out of the backfield. This will be a test for a secondary against a top-flight passing offense that will likely be willing to test it.

The good news, however, is that the rest of the Packer schedule will continue to be played against teams that are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to passing offenses: Carolina (24th), Houston (13th), Jacksonville (19th) , Chicago (18th), and Detroit (27th).

Chances are that those teams will likely try to beat the Packers with the ground game, placing more onus on our front seven to continue to establish themselves like they did against the Bears.

But, the chances are also high that our secondary will continue to dominate. A refreshing change, indeed, and one of the times I am happy to stand corrected.

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