GREEN BAY – Any questions about how the Packers plan to get the most out of their deep array of defensive backs were quickly brushed aside during last Sunday’s opener against Chicago.
New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine dialed up a scheme favoring the secondary in his Packers debut, running as many as seven defensive backs on the field together simultaneously.
While it’s only one game, it’s clear why General Manager Brian Gutekunst placed such a heavy emphasis on the secondary this offseason, which included the re-signing of veteran Tramon Williams and using Green Bay’s first two draft picks on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson.
Not only did Williams and Kevin King play all 70 snaps in the 24-23 win over the Bears, but Pettine also firmly integrated Alexander (49 snaps) and Jackson (46 snaps) into a game plan that included a lot of hybrid nickel and dime sub-packages.
With coverage linebacker Oren Burks out with a shoulder injury he suffered last month in Oakland, second-year safety Jermaine Whitehead also played 25 snaps in a hybrid safety role next to starting inside linebacker Blake Martinez.
The Packers didn’t have such luxury throughout much of last season when injuries cut deep into the secondary, requiring several young players to tread water in the starting lineup.
“We have a lot of talent through the whole entire defense,” safety Kentrell Brice said. “It just goes to credit we have great cover guys. We have a great secondary room. We have a great defense in totality. We have a lot of players and we’re trying to get better on the field.”
One factor players believe has contributed to a more streamlined approach in the secondary has been the cornerbacks and safeties merging together under defensive pass-game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. and secondary coach Jason Simmons.
That communication was evident in holding the Bears to 155 net passing yards (the seventh-lowest in Week 1) and will be critical in this Sunday’s matchup with the Minnesota Vikings.
New Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said the seven-DB looks the Packers showed against the Bears are something he must stay aware of at all times, especially since Pettine showed he’s willing to use that package in a variety of different situations.
For the Packers, it proved to be an effective way to get both Alexander and Jackson involved as slot cornerbacks in the defense Sunday. Both rookies showed promise throughout training camp, with each grabbing an interception in the preseason.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy mentioned there’s still areas of growth ahead of both rookies, but was pleased with their debuts and the fact neither Alexander nor Jackson wanted to be taken off the field. In the end, both rookies have proven themselves worthy of early playing time.
“They’ve earned it. They’ve earned opportunity," McCarthy said. "We have a number of different defensive personnel groups that we were getting in and out of in the Chicago game and that’s just really a product of what they’ve done since they’ve been here. ... We’re playing to win. So whatever is the defensive personnel, special teams, all hands on deck. Those guys earned those opportunities. That’s why they’re in there.”
Right now Green Bay is focused on its next challenge in the form of Cousins, who threw for at least 4,000 yards in each of his last three seasons in Washington, and receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs.
Coming off his first Pro Bowl season after catching 91 passes for 1,276 yards in 2017, Thielen fell right back into his groove last Sunday against San Francisco with six receptions for 102 yards.
“As far as the receiving corps goes, they have two primary targets and we have six, seven, eight DBs who can all go,” Alexander said. “I think the potential is pretty high right now. We’re all building chemistry. I think we have that chemistry right now. Now, we just have to figure out a celebration after we make a play. We gel together. That’s good.”
Alexander is serious about those plans, too. He was impressed with what the Packers’ receiving corps came up with last year after the league relaxed its restrictions on end-zone celebrations and is working to brainstorm a possible secondary routine.
Brice doesn’t see too drastic a change from 2017 to 2018 with the secondary, but acknowledges the rookie cornerbacks have infused talent and confidence in the room.
As the Packers look to reverse their fortunes from a year ago, they’re going to be counting on those prospects to help steer them through the trials and tribulations of a 16-game schedule.
“We basically have the same (room). We just added a couple guys and they bring tremendous talent to the room,” Brice said. “Those who we already had are getting better and the young guys we brought in are going to continue to grow and get better. The sky is the limit for us.”
The new guy: Deante Burton thought he likely was headed back to the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad after the receiver-turned-cornerback was waived by the team on Monday.
That was until Burton was informed the Packers had claimed him off waivers Tuesday. After catching a flight to Green Bay that evening, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound cornerback was on the practice field Wednesday for the first time in a Packers uniform.
“I got on a plane last night at about 8:50 p.m., got here and then checked in the hotel and got up here first thing in the morning,” Burton said. “That’s the nature of the business. You’ve got to get used to it. Some guys do this three, four times a month.”
Burton, who shares the same hometown (Manhattan, Kan.) as former Packers receiver Jordy Nelson, caught 84 passes for 1,085 yards at Kansas State before signing with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent last offseason.
It was in Atlanta Burton began transitioning to cornerback, a position at which he’ll continue to hone his skills in Green Bay under Whitt.
“I’m pestering these guys. They’ve been super helpful,” said Burton of the Packers’ other cornerbacks. “I’m on everyone’s hip, just trying to figure out what they need me to do and where I can help, where I can be, whether it’s running cards on scout offense or holding bags. If it’s anything I can do to help to pick up this defense and pick up special teams, I’m doing whatever I can.”