Nickel Corner May Be Singled Out

It’s second-nature for a nickelback -- the third cornerback who comes in when the defense employs five defensive backs -- to expect to get picked on by the opposing team’s quarterback, particularly a savvy veteran like Donovan McNabb. - More Audio | Video | Packers-Eagles Gameday


It's second-nature for a nickelback -- the third cornerback who comes in when the defense employs five defensive backs -- to expect to get picked on by the opposing team's quarterback.

After all, if the nickelback were better than the two starting cornerbacks, he wouldn't be a nickelback, right? So the quarterback is always going to notice when the nickelback comes onto the field, and see if he gets a matchup he can exploit.

That was no more evident than last year when the Packers played the Eagles on Monday Night Football in Philadelphia. In a tight, 10-9 game in the third quarter, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb went after Packers nickelback Ahmad Carroll and succeeded in changing the game.

In a span of less than two minutes, McNabb completed touchdown passes of 45 and 30 yards to Greg Lewis, with a 14-yard pass interference penalty on Carroll in between. It may be unfair to place the blame of both TD passes solely on Carroll, but the coverage did break down on Carroll's side of the field both times, and General Manager Ted Thompson's decision to release Carroll the next day was as strong a message as any that the Packers needed an upgrade at the nickel spot.

This year's training camp ended with second-year pro Jarrett Bush, a Utah State product who was claimed on waivers last season from Carolina and played mostly special teams in 2006, leading the race for the nickel job behind starting corners Al Harris and Charles Woodson. And with another matchup against the Eagles and McNabb looming in the 2007 season opener, Bush is not naïve as to the task he'll face on Sunday.

"The coaches already told me they're going to come at me, so I just have to get ready to hold my own," Bush said. "I can't back down."

If Bush is the Packers' first option at nickel on Sunday, he'll almost certainly get a chance to show he deserves to keep the job, but there's no guarantee on the length of the audition. Unlike last year, when the Packers brought Patrick Dendy up from the practice squad to take the nickel job after Carroll was released, the team has more options this season should Bush encounter trouble.

Veteran free agent acquisition Frank Walker, second-year pro Will Blackmon and rookie Tramon Williams are all cornerbacks who endured a difficult training camp battle to make the final roster. It's uncertain if all three will be active on gameday, but very likely at least two will.

Bush's goal will be to make those extra options a luxury, not a necessity.

"The type of person I am, I'm going to come out and try to make them pay for coming at me," Bush said. "That's the only thing I can do.

"If I get beat once, I'm going to come back and try to get in their face again. You can't think about getting beat. You just have to go out there and compete."

Interestingly, Bush could end up competing against a fellow Utah State player, wide receiver Kevin Curtis. A free agent from St. Louis, Curtis signed with the Eagles this past offseason, and Bush said the two of them have worked out together in Utah in the past.

There's no telling exactly where Curtis will line up, should the Eagles go to three wide receivers and force the Packers into their nickel defense. Generally speaking when the Packers go to their nickel, Harris and the third corner take the outside receivers, and Woodson moves inside to cover the slot man.

But whether he's assigned to Curtis or another Eagles receiver (Reggie Brown, Hank Baskett, Jason Avant or Lewis), Bush will look to continue building on his strong training camp and preseason. He made a strong early impression in camp and then picked off two passes (and nearly had a third) in the second preseason game against Seattle.

"He's worked his way into this opportunity, and he's very deserving," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said. "He's worked hard on his technique. He's a good person, and when you combine the qualities of good character, good teammate, good toughness, good attention to detail, you have a chance to be a pretty good player."

{sportsad300}The Packers are certainly hoping so, because they're also looking for players capable of stepping in for Harris and Woodson, both 10-year veterans, at some point in the future.

But that's a discussion for another day. This week, the focus is on the Eagles and not allowing a repeat of last year's Monday night defeat.

"I think he's ready for the challenge," Sanders said of Bush. "His expectation is to play at the same level Al and 'Wood' do."

That's not what a polished quarterback like McNabb will be thinking, but Bush understands that. It comes with the territory, particularly on a team with Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks ahead of him.

"They see Al and 'Wood', two veteran established guys, and then they see me," Bush said. "They're going to see Utah State, two years experience, free agent, and they're going to say, 'We have to test him, we have to test him.'

"That's how all offensive coordinators are. They're going to test all the corners. They're going to test all of us at some point."

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