In 2014, many Packers fans became hopeful about the potential of first-round pick HaHa Clinton-Dix becoming the playmaking defensive back they have missed since Charles Woodson departed for his second stint with the Oakland Raiders.
Clinton-Dix often displayed his willingness to come up and tackle ball carriers in his rookie season, albeit not always finishing the play. Critics would cite his lack of fundamentals and inconsistency when tackling as a weakness.
As a rookie, Clinton-Dix logged 66 tackles, 28 assists, one interception and one sack in the regular season. He added two more interceptions in the NFC Championship Game, where he showcased his playmaking ability with an impressive return.
This season, his numbers didn’t jump dramatically, but improved in almost every category: 82 tackles, 17 assists, two interceptions, three sacks.
It seems as though in 2015, seeing the game even a half step faster seem made a clear difference in the new number 21 in Green Bay’s secondary being around the ball at all times and making plays against the run.
There’s no game that better illustrates his ability to play around the line of scrimmage and his consistency when defending the run than the improbable Motor City Miracle game in Detroit.
Clinton-Dix posted a +3.2 on Pro Football Focus’s grading scale and after that game, had the highest season-long grade for a safety against the run through 13 weeks.
Let’s look at some of that production and what makes him one of the defense’s more valuable assets heading into 2016.
Above, you can see Clinton-Dix recognizing run almost immediately after the snap, and he flies downhill to meet fullback Michael Burton at the point of attack. He dips his left shoulder right through the thigh of Burton, forcing a pile at the feet of Bell, who leaves his feet and widens even further his path to the edge. Taking on blocks isn’t a glory stat (or a stat at all?) but isn’t something to be taken for granted.
Him doing so on this particular play gives Jones a chance to scrape from inside for a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
The Packers did a nice job flowing towards the ball in general, but Clinton-Dix flashed ability to read and react instantly, then blow the play up by taking on the block in the backfield.
Now, an example of discipline and play recognition:
Above, the Lions run an end around with Golden Tate. Again, a play that also isn’t going for a big gain regardless, but three yards is all that was earned in large part because of Clinton-Dix diagnosing the play and combining discipline when setting the edge with good technique in taking on another Burton block.
He’s lined up outside shade of Burton and about three yards off the ball. Burton has no chance of getting outside of him to give Tate the edge, but Clinton-Dix also doesn’t get washed so far outside, which would create a lane for Tate to cut up-field and deal with the defenders flowing from inside from the second level of the defense.
Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers has no doubt recognized his ability and has used him at the line of scrimmage more and more this season, as well as showing no hesitation to send Clinton-Dix or any of his defensive backs after the quarterback this season.
Clinton-Dix does so successfully here:
It wasn’t only the Lions that Clinton-Dix was productive against, though that was certainly the easiest game to use as an example of his progress in 2015.
Here, in the first quarter of the Packers home opener against the Seahawks in Week 2, you can see similar things in terms of recognition and willingness to take on a lead block:
When the story of the 2015 Packers defense is told, their success against the run will be credited more to a dominant Mike Daniels, a rejuvenated B.J. Raji, encouraging signs from Jones and Mike Pennell, and an improvement at linebacker with Clay Matthews patrolling the middle of the defense.
But Clinton-Dix – and Morgan Burnett for that matter (88.3 PFF season grade, third highest amongst NFL safeties) – have provided stability and playmaking ability at safety that has long been missing since Woodson and Nick Collins were making Pro Bowls in Green and Gold.
Former Packers safety Nick Collins, who Mike McCarthy believed to be on a Hall of Fame track, emerged as one of the league’s best defensive backs in his fourth year.
Though he is a very different type of player, it’d be fair to say that Clinton-Dix, General Manager Ted Thompson’s biggest draft day investment in a safety since Collins was taken with the 51st overall pick in the 2005, is on an encouraging pace to become another dependable difference-maker in a talented young secondary.