Last season, it wasn’t just the Green Bay Packers’ offense that was setting records. The defense was setting records, too – just not the good kind. After a quick exit from the playoffs last season, the Packers brass decided to do something about the defense and spent their first six draft picks on defensive players. Though only nine games into the season, the rookies have helped boost the defense. Green Bay isn’t going to be known as a shutdown defense any time soon, but progress has been made.
Obviously the front end and back end of the defense help each other out quite a bit. A huge reason the Packers surrendered so many passing yards last season was the line’s inability to put any sort of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The improvement on the Green Bay defensive line has been instrumental to the defense’s overall improvement, but I want to focus on the secondary, particularly the safeties.
The Packers lost their dependable, pro-bowl safety Nick Collins last year to a career-ending neck injury and were never prepared for his absence. It was a big deal in the offseason when Charles Woodson was switched from cornerback to safety, though, in reality, he had been playing a cornerback-safety hybrid position for years. When you take away Woodson’s 15 years of experience, the other four Packer safeties have just seven years experience combined. Morgan Burnett is in his third year, while M.D. Jennings is in his second, and both Jerron McMillian and Sean Richardson are rookies. Richardson has had limited playing time so far, but Burnett, Jennings, and McMillian have done a very solid job this year, especially considering Woodson’s absence due to a broken collarbone.
In 2011, the Packers defense was dead last in total passing yards and passing yards per game, and 27th in touchdowns allowed. This year, so far, they are 19th and 20th in total passing yards and passing yards per game, respectively, and 14th in touchdowns allowed. I’m not bragging by any means, because those are still bad numbers, but it’s still significant progress from the previous season.
There are two games that come to mind when I think about how the safeties have improved: Week 2 against the Chicago Bears and Week 9 against the Arizona Cardinals. Each team has a star wide receiver who can torch a defense. For both of these games, easy-on-the-eyes cornerback Tramon Williams gets the lion’s share of credit for limiting Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald, but the safeties’ coverage allowed Williams to blanket Marshall and Fitzgerald. Burnett and Jennings, in particular, provided solid support that allowed Williams to stay so close to Marshall that a frustrated Jay Cutler only threw the ball to his favorite receiver five times, four of which Marshall caught for a total of 24 yards. Fitzgerald caught six passes for 74 yards, which I’m okay with because I think he’s the best receiver in the league. 31 of those yards came from one play, however, and Fitzgerald was only able to hang on to 50% of the throws he was targeted on. Nearly every time the ball was thrown to Fitzgerald, Williams was right there to contest the reception and either Burnett or Jennings was just a few yards downfield to ensure that Fitzgerald couldn’t make a big gain if he did hang onto the ball. Last season, without safeties that could be trusted, the cornerbacks had to play far off the receivers, allowing uncontested receptions out of fear of giving up the bigger play.
There are certainly points to be made about the weaknesses that still remain in this secondary (Reggie Wayne turning the clock back 10 years and gaining 200 yards on them, shutting down Marshall and Fitzgerald isn’t as impressive when you consider their quarterbacks, &c.), but things are trending up for the Packers defensive backs. Burnett, Jennings, and McMilian will continue to improve – and they’ll have to. With Woodson still out and the Packers defensive line suffering major injuries, more pressure will be put on the secondary to create turnovers and get the defense off the field on third downs. The next two weeks against Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning will be a big test for this young secondary to see just how much they have improved.