GREEN BAY – The Packers gave a strong vote of confidence to their secondary earlier this month when they opted to keep 11 defensive backs on the initial 53-man roster.
The move not only reflected the growing importance of the position in today’s NFL but also the part defensive backs stand to play in Mike Pettine’s defense this season.
The Packers’ second-year coordinator wasted no time putting most of that secondary depth to the test in last Thursday’s opener against the Chicago Bears.
Despite missing inside linebacker Oren Burks (chest), the Packers’ defense held the Bears to only 46 rushing yards and three points while playing all 71 defensive snaps with at least five DBs backs on the field at all times.
“We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of different personnel groups,” third-year cornerback Kevin King said. “We have seven DBs out there running the same plays when we have four DBs. Guys are interchangeable because guys are smart. We know what we’re supposed to be doing if we’re playing the dime or the nickel. That’s the type of above-the-shoulders football that we play here.”
The four who played every snap were the usual suspects – veteran Tramon Williams, budding playmaker Jaire Alexander, rookie safety Darnell Savage and offseason acquisition Adrian Amos, who preserved a 10-3 win over his former team with an interception in Green Bay’s end zone at the two-minute warning.
Beyond the core starters, however, there were several other defensive backs who contributed to the win, illustrating just how deep Pettine can dig into his bag of tricks.
Former undrafted free agent Raven Greene had the most sizeable role. Playing a career-high 57 snaps in his first NFL start, Greene stepped into the hybrid safety role that has gained prominence in Green Bay’s defense over the past four years.
The biggest difference from the “Nitro” nickel the Packers utilized under Dom Capers or even the packages Pettine deployed in 2018 was how Greene played alongside inside linebacker Blake Martinez on early downs behind a five-man base front of three defensive linemen and two edge rushers.
Greene, who has been playing with the starters since the spring OTAs, took it upon himself to further develop his body in the offseason. Greene said he currently hovers around 212 pounds after playing at 197 as a rookie.
Despite the Packers playing with a lighter box, Chicago mustered only 3.1 yards on 15 carries and didn’t have a rushing attempt of more than eight yards. All told, it was the fewest rushing yards Green Bay had allowed since conceding 43 yards to the New York Giants on Oct. 9, 2016.
“I feel like we played 11-man defense and that’s something we have to do every time no matter who it is we’re facing,” said Greene, who had six tackles and a breakup. “It’s a good feeling to be out there getting reps no matter what the capacity. I feel like everybody did a good job for the most part.”
Behind Alexander and Williams, the Packers platooned King (42 snaps) and second-year cornerback Tony Brown (27 snaps) in their nickel and occasionally turned to both in dime.
King was on a pitch count in his first in-game action of the season after a hamstring injury sidelined him during the preseason but still played 42 snaps, including all 17 plays during the Bears’ final two series.
On top of registering his first career sack, King had five tackles and nearly a second-quarter interception of Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. The former second-round pick also came out of the game no worse for wear.
“Kevin is a really, really good player and a very good athlete,” Williams said. “Just to have him available, you don’t have many 6-3 cornerbacks in this league with the type of athletic ability and movement that he has. Kevin would be an asset to any team in this league.”
After funneling through 14 defensive backs in 2018, the Packers have ample reason to be well-preserved in their secondary.
Beyond the rotation in Chicago, Green Bay also has 2018 second-round pick Josh Jackson, rookie sixth-round pick Ka’dar Hollman and two veterans (Will Redmond and Chandon Sullivan) with NFL starts on their resume at the defense’s disposal. That’s not to mention Ibraheim Campbell (knee), who started the season on the physically unable to perform list.
The Packers’ defense is in for another stiff test this Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Despite featuring one of the league’s top receiving duos in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, Minnesota threw the ball only 10 times in its 28-12 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Instead, the Vikings’ catalyst to victory was a run game that produced 172 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries.
The Packers will have more available help at inside linebacker after trading for B.J. Goodson last week. During his Wednesday pre-practice news conference, Head Coach Matt LaFleur said he “would anticipate seeing him quite a bit out there” soon enough.
Whether that’s this Sunday against Minnesota remains to be seen. Regardless, there’s optimism the Packers’ secondary has the players it needs to adjust to the shifting tide of a long NFL season.
“I think it serves us well,” said Williams of the secondary depth. "Because of depth purposes but also just different looks – lining up different people at different positions. Quarterbacks not knowing exactly what position we’re playing. … You can cause offenses problems (since) they don’t know we’re doing.”