Packers search for answers at safety

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, January 10, 2014

GREEN BAY--When the topic of interceptions, of turnovers made its way into the meeting room, position coach Darren Perry used that old line by songwriter Jerry Reed.

When you’re hot, you’re hot.

“And I don’t necessarily think we were hot this year,” safety Chris Banjo said. “You’d see some other secondaries getting interceptions and you’re like, ‘Why can’t we get some of those breaks?’ Whether it’s an overthrown ball or a tip here or something there.”

As the second line of that chorus goes, “When you’re not, you’re not!” The Packers safeties finished with zero interceptions in 17 games. Zip. For at least the first time since the 1950s. Almost unfathomable in today’s NFL, where 28 of 32 teams attempted at least 500 passes. Equally alarming is that Green Bay was rarely even around the ball. The team’s free safety—M.D. Jennings—had no pass breakups.

In one 10-minute span Wednesday, Perry was asked about the interception goose egg six times.

He coaches a position that’s supposed to inhabit playmakers. Yet big plays reached historic lows.

With this season officially in the books, Perry insists it’s not a lack of interceptions that troubles him. Repeatedly, the coach said his focus is on the “quality of play” out of his position. And that wasn’t good enough in 2013.

Asked if a veteran could help, Perry says it’s too early to tell. The Packers will analyze their own players first.

“We make no excuses,” Perry said. “We just didn’t get it done. I don’t think that was a lack of ability. The ability’s there. We just have to make sure we’re more consistent with what we’re doing play in and play out.”

Surrendering big plays irritated Perry more than creating them. The defense was gashed for 61 pass plays of 20-plus yards, tied for the fifth most in the NFL. That nearly equaled 2011 when Green Bay allowed 71 such plays. This is the “safety” position, the last line of defense. Harping that interceptions are an organic byproduct of playing sound fundamentals, Perry admits the “quality of play” was not up to par.

Not ideal after handing Morgan Burnett a four-year, $24.75 million contract extension.

Burnett finished with 96 tackles (60 solo), five breakups, three fumble recoveries and no picks. Perry called his season “up and down” and “sporadic.”

Close to a few big plays—including one potential interception in the end zone at Dallas—Burnett has no interceptions in 44 of his last 47 games.

Again, it’s not the turnovers that concern Perry. It’s the consistency—a missed tackle, being a tick late in coverage.

“This isn’t a game of being close. You’ve got to get it done,” Perry said. “The big thing with Morgan is we’re going to be drilling home consistency….We had some plays happen against us that shouldn’t happen and we’ve got to eliminate that.”

In Burnett, the Packers tried to lock up a starter before that starter commanded an even greater bank-busting contract. That philosophy worked with Jordy Nelson. The Packers inked Nelson at a ridiculously cheap three-year, $12.6-million extension in 2011.

Perry didn’t sense the contract extension weighing on Burnett’s mind this season.

“Whatever it was, it wasn’t good enough,” Perry said. “We have to do a better job. Period.”

In truth, general manager Ted Thompson’s greatest off-season regret may lie at the other safety position. He trusted that Jennings and/or Jerron McMillian would develop. Management snoozed through free agency, the NFL draft and its lone undrafted pickup at safety (Ben Ericksen) didn’t pass his physical.

McMillian was benched and released by Dec. 3. Jennings, who will be a restricted free agent this off-season, didn’t progress as planned. Perry said Jennings was “solid, not spectacular, not stellar.”

Said the coach, “Didn’t make the splash plays that you want from your free safety.”

This week, Perry planned on breaking down how often the Packers used a single-high safety and how often they went Cover 2. That could be one reason for the skunk. With two safeties back, there are more chances at picks. As the Packers’ run defense deteriorated, Dom Capers was forced to drop a safety into the box.

Still, seeing those zeros across the board is baffling. Perry admits he has never seen that from an entire safety group.

Asked if Jennings can be a starter in the NFL long term, Perry said “I don’t see why not.”

Green Bay wants the 195-pound Jennings—once a soaking-wet 160-pounder at Arkansas State—to bulk up.

“If he continues to grow, get a little bigger, a little stronger,” Perry said, “I think those are two key elements with him because he can run. He’s athletic. And again, so much of this league is about consistency. You see guys who can do it for a little bit of the time. But over the course of a game, can a guy do it for 70 plays, 65 plays? That’s what you’re looking for.

“That’s how you separate your good players from your great players and your average from your really good players.”

The Packers must nail that distinction this off-season. Last April, they passed on Matt Elam and Johnathan Cyprien in the first round of the draft. In Baltimore, Elam had 77 tackles, three breakups and one pick. In Jacksonville, Cyprien had 104 tackles, six breakups and one pick.

The 216-pound Sean Richardson returned from his neck injury to serve as an extra linebacker in the run game the final six games. Banjo defied the odds by making the team after a year out of football. In 2014, Banjo hopes to compete for a starting job.

“If I come back, that’s definitely the plan,” Banjo said. “As a player, that’s everyone’s goal—to start, to get playing time.”

Yet, players seem to realize they’ll have company in 2014.

“I know in the future, they may add some more,” Banjo said. “Regardless, I think we still have a good foundation to build on.”

And Banjo knows the safeties will be scratching their heads all off-season. They see the weekly highlights. Practically, every other defense had tipped balls, wayward overthrows. No other team in the league had a pick-less safety group. Back in training camp, Perry cited several interceptions the Packers missed in 2012. Guys often poked fun at McMillian for his stone hands.

This season, those opportunities hardly existed.

Be it a lack of instincts by the players themselves or dumb luck, the Packers’ safeties were not around the ball in 2013. Playmakers are in demand.

There’s much, much more to the position than interceptions. Even then, this season’s group didn’t deliver. The 23-20 playoff loss to San Francisco was another reminder.

Burnett was late over the top on Vernon Davis’ 28-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Jennings whiffed on a fumble recovery along the sideline. Make one of those plays and maybe the Packers are still playing.

Perry believes Burnett is an “ascending” player. He can “be as good as he wants to be.” However, after analyzing this group, there’s one consensus.

The safety play wasn’t good enough in 2013.

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