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Packers' secondary to take a different shape

Green Bay’s defense will lean on its depth, ability on the back end


GREEN BAY – For the first time in four years, the Packers will take the field on Sunday without Ha Ha Clinton-Dix roaming their secondary.

Green Bay dealt the fifth-year safety to Washington in exchange for a fourth-round pick prior to the NFL's trading deadline at 3 p.m. CT on Tuesday. It's the third extra draft choice General Manager Brian Gutekunst has acquired for the 2019 NFL Draft, along with New Orleans' first-round pick and Seattle's sixth.

A durable playmaker on the back end, Clinton-Dix had racked up 378 tackles and 14 interceptions in 4½ seasons in Green Bay, and hadn't missed a game since being drafted in 2014.

While the trade is an investment in the team's future, the Packers are still carrying a win-now mindset into the second half of their 2018 slate of regular-season games.

Both Gutekunst and Head Coach Mike McCarthy cited the young talent in the secondary as a reason for optimism and the Packers' locker room feels likewise, with several young defensive backs champing at the bit for an opportunity.

The Packers were back on the practice field Wednesday ahead of Sunday's matchup with the Patriots.

"That just speaks to the depth that was in our room before, and it speaks to the depth that we have now," cornerback Kevin King said. "Ha Ha was definitely a big part of that, but we've got the guys to fill in."

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has been creative with his utilization of Green Bay's versatile defensive backs this year, which plays into the Packers not declaring a full-fledged starter next to third-year veteran Kentrell Brice at the moment.

The defense has plenty of in-house options at the position, including three young safety prospects in Jermaine Whitehead, Josh Jones and rookie Raven Greene.

Whitehead didn't practice Wednesday due to a back injury, but he has 17 tackles and two deflections as a hybrid safety and slot cornerback in six games (two starts). Jones, a second-round pick last year, had 71 tackles, two sacks and an interception in 16 games with seven starts as a rookie.

"Obviously, the guys are here for a reason. We can all play in this league," Jones said. "We've got a lot of things to fill as far as Ha Ha was a Pro Bowl safety. The departure of that, the guys have got to step up and try to keep it going."

Pettine also has a healthy stable of cornerbacks at his disposal, with the recent return of rookie first-round pick Jaire Alexander (groin) and veteran Bashaud Breeland (hamstring) from injury rounding out a group that also includes King, veteran Tramon Williams and rookie second-round pick Josh Jackson.

Alexander had a breakthrough performance Sunday in Los Angeles with five passes defensed, the most by a Green Bay defender since 2005. The addition of Alexander and Jackson, and return of King from offseason shoulder surgery, has played a big part in the Packers sitting fifth in the league in pass defense.

The "godfather" of the group is Williams, according to Brice, and without Clinton-Dix in the meeting room, the 12th-year veteran is set to assume an even greater leadership role in a secondary that has only one other player (Breeland) older than 25.

"We have leadership in 'T.' He has so much knowledge and experience to help you with," said Brice, who has started all seven games at safety this year. "We just have to stick together, honestly. No one is pressing here. We know what our talent is. We just have to play our game."

Brice said he drove Clinton-Dix to the airport after Tuesday's announcement. The two exchanged pleasantries and well-wishes before parting company. Now, Brice says it's up to the young players on the roster to fill his void.

Whatever form the secondary takes, the Packers will need to gel quickly with Sunday's matchup against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots presenting yet another challenge.

"I feel like with a situation like that, with a player like that, with a leader like that, it's definitely going to impact the locker room," King said. "I know Ha Ha is going to do well, he's going to excel wherever he was or wherever he will be at, just like he did where he was. … Moving forward we've got to keep it going."