Packers excited about future of secondary under Jason Simmons

Longtime assistant eager to lead Green Bay’s defensive backs in 2019 and beyond

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GREEN BAY – As the longest-tenured assistant on the Packers' coaching staff, Jason Simmons has done it all in Green Bay over the past eight years.

After getting his break as a coaching administrator in 2011, Simmons coached both defense and special teams before serving as secondary coach under defensive pass-game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. this past year.

All of those experiences, on top of a 10-year playing career, gave Head Coach Matt LaFleur and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine the confidence to assign Simmons his biggest coaching opportunity – a promotion to head defensive backs coach.

After the Packers merged the cornerback and safety rooms in 2018, LaFleur opted to keep a similar structure in place going into his first season as head coach, with Simmons taking over the pivotal post in Pettine's defense and former defensive quality control coach Ryan Downard assisting.

"I'm thrilled we were able to promote Jason Simmons in the secondary room. I think he's going to do outstanding," said Pettine during last week's media interviews with the coaching staff.

"I'm sure there was a temptation to want to bring in a bigger name defensive back coach, (but) Matt feels the same way – you want to promote from within, grow your own mentality. That's why it was an easy decision to promote both those guys."

Simmons, 42, played safety and starred on special teams for Pittsburgh and Houston, seeing action in 121 career regular-season games over 10 seasons.

His time with the Steelers and Texans showed Simmons the importance of continuity in building a defense. Working under Pettine this past season, Simmons felt the Packers' defense move in the right direction despite a litany of injuries to several key starters in the secondary.

Kevin King and Davon House finished the season on injured reserve, while promising rookie Jaire Alexander and veteran acquisition Bashaud Breeland combined to miss 12 games due to lower-body injuries. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix also was dealt at the trading deadline, which led to Tramon Williams finishing the year at safety.

Although Breeland will be an unrestricted free agent next month, the Packers are set to return a majority of their contributors from a secondary that improved from 23rd to 12th in pass defense last season.

"The first thing is continuity – guys playing with each other for a second year in the system and understanding the system," Simmons said. "Guys will be responding instead of reacting, and that's all based on anticipation. So we're excited in that respect."

Downard, 30, worked closely with Whitt and Simmons last season on top of his other day-to-day responsibilities, occasionally running drills and assisting the defensive backs.

A former safety himself at Eastern Michigan, Downard played two seasons under Jim O'Neill prior to Pettine and Rex Ryan hiring O'Neill as a defensive backs coach with the New York Jets in 2009.

O'Neill proceeded to follow Pettine to Buffalo in 2013 and served as his defensive coordinator in Cleveland from 2014-15. That connection led to Pettine hiring Downard as a defensive quality control coach with the Browns and then bringing him to Green Bay in the same capacity last season.

"It's an unbelievable opportunity," Downard said. "Obviously those years I put in and spent in quality control, particularly underneath Coach Pettine, have been really valuable for me. He's really brought me up, among other coaches. Just to be able to be in this system that I've spent three years in, I feel even more prepared than I would if I was in a new system."

High on the list of tasks for Simmons and Downard will be overseeing the continued development of King, Alexander and Josh Jackson.

With King battling a hamstring issue for most of the season, Alexander was thrust into a key role in the defense at only 21 years old. Frequently matching some of the NFL's top receivers, the first-round pick racked up 66 tackles, 11 passes defensed and an interception in 13 games (11 starts) on his way to garnering a place on the PFWA All-Rookie Team.

Factoring in King's production when healthy, the Packers are excited about the future of the defensive backfield. At the same time, as Simmons cautions, potential only can take you so far.

Simmons wants to see more than just promise from his position in 2019.

"That's what we're anticipating, but we want guys to understand potential is the worst word in sports. It's about production," Simmons said. "Now at this point, it's time to turn that potential into production."

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