When one considers the embarrassing defensive manner in which the Packers exited the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 seasons, one might assume that the Packers would not have depth (or talent for that matter) in the defensive backfield. Kurt Warner, Eli Manning, and Colin Kaepernick all had huge individual games that ended the Packers seasons (well there was that one season a couple years ago where the defense tightened up even though it was missing a million starters and then WE WON THE FREAKING SUPER BOWL!). In 2009 against the Cardinals, the Packers didn’t have Burnett, House, Hayward or Shields. in 2011 Eli’s numbers wouldn’t have looked that great without a fluky end-of-the-half Hail Mary. I’ve watched the film on last year’s loss to the 49ers in the playoffs, and in my professional opinion, roughly 570 of the 49ers 579 offensive yards can actually be attributed to now-Indianapolis Colt Erik Walden (bitter much?). The truth is actually quite the opposite, as the Packers have 4 starting quality cornerbacks on the roster. This is a fantastic problem to have. Former All-Pro Tramon Williams, speed demon Sam Shields, should-have-been-DROY Casey Hayward, and physical 3rd year man Davon House are vying for 2 (read: 3) starting positions.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the Packers play a sub-package defense 66.8% of the time. Because of this, 5 or 6 DBs are on the field at a time. Last season the nickel package included 3 CBs and 2 S. In the dime package, the Packers stayed with 3 CBs and played Morgan Burnett and Jerron McMillian dropped down into the other slot position (MD Jennings teamed with Burnett at safety). Whether the Packers will employ a 3 CB 3 S dime group or go with the more traditional 4 CB and 2 S package remains to be seen. The bottom line is that while the Packers base defense is technically a 3-4, more often than not there are 3 CBs on the field. The question is when the Packers are in the 2-4-5 defense that they play most of the time, which 3 players are going to be on the field, and which starting caliber player is going to be on the sidelines watching when all four (if all four [knock on wood]) are healthy.
I know one thing with relative certainty. When our favorite team actually does line up in the 2-4-5 nickel, Casey Hayward is going to slide inside to be the nickelback. Hayward played fantastically in the slot last season, tallying 6 interceptions in limited playing time and finishing 3rd in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting (cough, bullshit, cough). Hayward was selected by Pro Football Focus as an honorable mention for their slot corner “prototype”. Haywards ability to match up with shifty inside receivers and make plays on the ball separate him from other inside CBs. He also flashed some ability as a blitzer, but needs to be able to close the deal, as on two separate occasions I remember him whiffing on the QB after blitzing basically untouched.
The other three CBs all fit and project as effective outside corners. Tramon Williams once was the type of shutdown corner that would follow around a Calvin Johnson or a Roddy White all game long and more than hold his own. Sam Shields has the long speed (4.30 40) to run with any receiver in the league and is improving as a cover corner and as a tackler. Davon House is a physical Al-Harris-type presence that has been missing from the secondary. It appeared that House had won the outside CB job opposite Tramon Williams in training camp last year before a shoulder subluxation injury in the preseason opener cost him that spot. The injury was tended to surgically in January and House, by all accounts, will be full go for training camp.
What I’d like to see happen and what I think is going to happen are two different things. I would like to see Williams and House together in the base 3-4. I understand that Adrian Peterson or Matt Forte coming around the corner isn’t really a good situation for anyone, but I would rather have the 6’1” 195 lb. House out there defending the run (keep in mind, Green Bay uses their base 3-4 as a run stopping formation) than the speedy Shields or the slightly smaller Hayward. This was the concept behind Jarret Bush winning the starting job out of camp last season. The only difference between House and Bush is that House can cover people (zing!). With those two on the field you could either play LCB and RCB or have Williams follow the team’s best receiver around the field.
I want to preface my thoughts on the nickel configuration by saying that I’m anticipating Tramon Williams really returning to form this season. I don’t think he’ll ever play at the level he was at in 2010, but something between 2012 Williams (pretty good) and 2010 Williams (All-Pro) is what I think is coming out of #38. I’d love if a CB hungry team that thought they were going to make the playoffs offered Green Bay a 1st round pick for Tramon. It’d be nice to get his contract off the books, grab an extra first round pick, and have 3 young, starting quality CBs, Micah Hyde to develop and Jarret Bush for special teams and emergencies. It’s not going to happen so I think what I’d like to happen when the Packers go nickel is have House and a DL come off the field and bring Shields and Hayward in. It’s not that I don’t think House can cover, but no one on the defense has the raw speed and athletic ability that Shields does. Hayward is already one of the best slot corners in the business and Williams should be back to elite cover-corner status. (There is also a sneaky devil’s advocate thought that because Shields is in a contract year the team would lean towards House, Williams, and Hayward getting the majority of the playing time so they can sign Sam on the cheap, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.)
What I honestly think is going to happen, though? Gun to my head: I would guess that Hayward proved enough last year and will improve enough from year 1 to year 2 to be a starter opposite Tramon. PFF rated Casey as the 3rd best CB in football last year, so I have a hard time believing that he’s not one of the best 2 CBs on the team. In nickel I anticipate a DL coming off and Shields covering the outside receiver opposite of the team’s WR1. Hayward will slide in to the nickel position a la Charles Woodson. Davon House will wait (not)patiently until his number is called.