Rookie Burnett’s ability, Harris’ recovery needed to solidfy secondary
About as many as there are 35-year-old cornerbacks who come all the way back from catastrophic knee injuries.
Morgan Burnett and Al Harris don’t control the fate of the Green Bay Packers’ defensive backfield in 2010. Yet, how successful they are bucking the odds no doubt will go a long way in determining whether this secondary remains one of the elite.
From cornerback Charles Woodson, the National Football League’s defensive player of the year, and free safety Nick Collins, possibly the finest safety in the NFC, the Packers have received 44 interceptions and 12 defensive touchdowns in the last four seasons.
When a team has two players that good, it makes filling around them so much easier.
In examining last season, the coaches could take pride in the fact that 26 of the NFL-leading 30 interceptions were by defensive backs and a fourth-place finish in opponents’ passer rating (68.8). In 13 of the 17 games, counting the playoff game, that rating was a scant 54.6.
It’s what happened in those other four games—two against Minnesota, one against Pittsburgh and the Arizona finale—that the staff won’t soon forget.
“We accomplished a lot of our goals,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “But the old saying is, statistics are for losers. Those are the games that kind of sit with you and eat at you. To end it the way we did, just not a good feeling at all. We’re in such a bottom-line business. We’re trying to win it all.”
Brett Favre’s ratings were 135.3 and 128.6, Ben Roethlisberger’s was 121.9 and Kurt Warner pushed perfection at 154.1. Their collective rating of 138.2 featured 15 touchdown passes, including 11 of 20 yards or less.
“Our biggest issue is red-zone defense,” said Joe Whitt, the second-year cornerbacks coach. “We were below the line (No. 28 ranking), especially in the ‘sub’ area. We have to improve. If we improve our red-zone defense, we (the secondary) will be No. 1 in the league.”
It wasn’t all the secondary’s fault. The linebackers were responsible for 8 1/2 touchdown passes, the most by that position in more than 15 years.
But before the Packers can make meaningful progress against the top passers, and there are 10 games on the schedule against top-15 quarterbacks, they’ve got to settle on a strong safety, a right cornerback and a nickel back.
Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff have defended Atari Bigby against critics since he beat out Marquand Manuel and Aaron Rouse for the job in 2007. Now, after sitting out the off-season seeking a contract extension and then being unable to work Saturday because a 2-year-old ankle injury flared up, it will be up to Bigby to earn back their support.
Assuming Bigby’s ankle enables him to regain past form and that Burnett doesn’t start off camp like a phenom, Bigby should get another chance. He can be physical. Perry insists his speed isn’t a problem. And defensive coordinator Dom Capers credited him for being the communication leader of the unit.
“Atari is going to do it exactly like you tell him to do it,” said Perry. “His technique is going to be on point. He will get sloppy in terms of his tackling. He’s got to be a little more disciplined in terms of how he plays things. But you can win with Atari Bigby.”
Based on practice in shorts, Ted Thompson’s trade up into the third round for Burnett at No. 71 looks prescient.
“I think he will be able to go get the ball,” Capers said. “He’s all business, he’s got nice size and he’s athletic.”
In the last five drafts, just four safeties taken in the third round or later played well as rookie starters: Baltimore’s Dawan Landry and Indianapolis’ Antoine Bethea in 2006, Tampa Bay’s Tanard Jackson in ‘07 and Carolina’s Charles Godfrey in ‘08.
“(Burnett) absolutely could play,” Perry said. “With these OTAs, you sit back and count the reps … he’s had plenty, plenty, plenty of reps. But you don’t know how he’ll handle having to tackle Adrian Peterson four or five times.”
Perhaps befitting someone who spent just three seasons at Georgia Tech, Burnett was knocked by some scouts for being out of position too much. There also was hesitation among personnel people concerning his willingness to get physical.
“There’s some lack of focus, some lack of reactiveness,” an AFC personnel director said. “If you’ve got a deep crossing pattern or deep dig, generally people are running a deep post behind that. That’s the safety’s job not to jump that dig so the post doesn’t go over his head. This kid may miss it 50-50.
”He’s got to be more disciplined in his reads. He’s a little ball hungry, and that’s probably why he’s come up with 14 picks. But he’s also given up some big plays. He probably was the last quality safety on the board. I can’t fault them for that.“
Harris is just eight months removed from reconstructive surgery to repair his blown knee. It probably would have ended a less willful player’s career.
The Packers expect Harris to return, but the question is when. Only then will the coaches know if the injury diminished his already mediocre speed.
“If his skill set is where it was when he left, he will play at a high level in this defense,” said Whitt. “He was having a damn good year.”
Nickel back Tramon Williams, who has played most of his 1,543 snaps in the past two years filling in for Harris, will start for the time being. The Packers now are paying him like a legitimate starter ($3.043 million tender), but a lot of scouts see him more as a good No. 3.
“He needs to play better,” said Capers. “He’s a smart guy. He can play inside and outside. He’s got to improve his tackling in the open field.”
When the Packers erred by prematurely placing Pat Lee on injured reserve last season and Brandon Underwood was deemed not ready, the staff went back to Jarrett Bush as nickel back down the stretch and suffered the consequences. He cannot find the ball.
At this point, Bush probably would rank sixth or seventh at cornerback. Underwood finished the off-season ahead of Lee by a hair for the No. 4 berth.
“I’m not dealing with the off-the-field stuff, but when he’s in this building I’ve been very pleased with Underwood,” Whitt said in late June. “He has a chance to be very good if he does everything the right way. And Pat has done very well at the nickel position in nickel and dime.”
Said Capers: “Underwood and Lee have to come through for us. Underwood has the tools you look for, he’s confident and very smart. I don’t know you’d say Lee is a speed merchant. He will have to use his height and long arms. The biggest thing with him is, can he stay healthy?”
Rookie free agent Sam Shields, the man from Miami with the blinding speed, will try to make the club on special teams as he buys time learning how to play cornerback.
“He’s got the physical tools of a top-flight corner,” said Capers. “There’s just so many things he has to learn.”
Woodson will turn 34 in October, but Whitt doesn’t anticipate age being a factor this season. For one thing, he relies more on stealth and study than speed. For another, spending a season in Capers’ system should only help.
“He caught (Chicago’s) Johnny Knox on that deep ball and he is supposed to be 4.2, so his speed is still there,” said Whitt. “I expect him to have a better year.”
Voted as a Pro Bowl starter in 2008 and flushed with a three-year, $22.8 million contract extension, Collins should be entering the prime of his career.
“To be great, consistency has to be there,” Perry said. “He’s a very good player with designs on being a great player. His experience probably outweighs his knowledge because he’s got so many snaps under his belt. I always am amazed at his ability to diagnose plays and see plays through his experience.”
Will Blackmon was back practicing in pads Saturday nine months after reconstructive knee surgery. Safety is a brand-new position for him, so he’ll have to win the return job to stick.
Also competing for the No. 4 safety job are Derrick Martin, the leader of the special teams; Charlie Peprah, a cerebral retread; and Anthony Levine, a competitive free agent.
“Probably Derrick Martin,” Perry replied when asked in late June who would enter camp as No. 4. “He’s a little undersized but plenty tough enough.”