Subtle Impact: Bigby Making A Difference

WHILE HOPING MORE BIG PLAYS COME HIS WAY In order for the Packers’ 3-4 defensive scheme to work, several players have to do what the coaches call the "dirty work," or the "little things," while others will inevitably get the credit. In the secondary, if there’s one player whose work goes a bit unrecognized, it’s safety Atari Bigby.

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S Atari Bigby finishes off his tackle of Bears RB Kahlil Bell on a key third-and-1 play in the third quarter of last Sunday's game in Chicago.

WHILE HOPING MORE BIG PLAYS COME HIS WAY

In order for the Packers' 3-4 defensive scheme to work, several players have to do what the coaches call the "dirty work," or the "little things," while others will inevitably get the credit.

Normally that discussion centers around the down linemen, who often are required to maintain proper gap control against the run and stay within their rush lanes against the pass, while the linebackers or other blitzers rack up the tackles and sacks.

But in the secondary there are little things that make a difference, too, and if there's one defensive back whose work goes a bit unrecognized, it's strong safety Atari Bigby.

A classic example came on the biggest play of last Sunday's victory in Chicago, free safety Nick Collins' interception in the fourth quarter that set up the game-winning touchdown.

Leading 14-13, the Bears faced third-and-5 from their own 32, and the Packers blitzed Tramon Williams from his right cornerback spot. Williams got a clear run at Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler, and with pressure in his face, Cutler lofted a poor throw toward receiver Johnny Knox along the sideline that Collins picked off and ran back 31 yards to the Chicago 11. Moments later, the Packers were in the end zone and they hung on to win, 21-14.

The analysis of the game-changing play focused on Williams and Collins, rightfully and understandably so. But Bigby, who was barely (if at all) within camera range on that play, executed an invaluable role in a couple of ways as well.

First, Collins explained after the game that the blitz call required him and Bigby to slide over and play a "trap coverage" on Williams' man, Knox, with Collins underneath and Bigby deep. Knowing he had Bigby behind him, Collins didn't have to run stride-for-stride with Knox the entire route, and he could keep his eyes on Cutler instead. The vision afforded by the trap coverage allowed Collins to put on the brakes and snag the ball when Cutler threw it right to him.

Second, and perhaps more important, safeties coach Darren Perry explained that pre-snap Bigby "showed opposite," meaning he was shading toward the middle of the field from his deep safety spot, not giving away that he was actually going to rotate over in coverage to his right, which is where Williams was blitzing from. As a result, the film showed the Bears' pass protection scheme looking for a blitz in the middle, leaving Williams unblocked.

"The pre-snap look that Bigby gave on that was a huge factor, because I think it got the protection away from Tramon and those guys coming off the edge," Perry said. "It's little things like that, that maybe go unnoticed by outside people, but as coaches we notice it, and that's part of that unselfishness we talked about with guys doing their job and sometimes doing the dirty work and not getting the glory.

"A guy like Nick, he understands that, and they appreciate what Atari's brought to this defense, particularly when we didn't have him."

Yes, it's easy to forget -- now that the Packers have risen to No. 2 in the league in total defense -- that Bigby missed three games after spraining a knee in the season opener. One of the last things the Packers could afford was Bigby suffering through another injury-plagued season after ankle, hamstring and shoulder issues limited him to just six starts in 2008, and almost none of them at full strength.

The fact that the Packers have risen from a middle-of-the-road defense to one of the league's best since the Week 5 bye, when Bigby returned from the knee sprain, shouldn't be overlooked. Two of the Packers' four losses came in those three games he missed, and several players have talked about their comfort level knowing Bigby is in the back end, both from a communication and assignment perspective.

That's why Perry, for one, doesn't look at Bigby's pedestrian statistics - 36 tackles (27 solo) with one interception and five passes defensed - as a true assessment of Bigby's value on defense.

"I'm pleased with what he's done for us," Perry said. "I know he wants to make more plays, and those things will come. Sometimes you just have to do your job and not worry about the stats and all those things, because they'll take care of themselves."

Perhaps they're already starting to. For all he does that goes unnoticed in this defense, Bigby did make one of the more eye-catching plays in Chicago as well.

The Bears had scored touchdowns on two consecutive possessions and were moving the ball again in the third quarter, getting across midfield, when they faced a key third-and-1. But a handoff to Kahlil Bell went nowhere, as Bigby shot an open gap and upended Bell, forcing a punt.

"It was third-and-short, so I knew by them being a physical team they were probably going to run the ball," Bigby said. "I cheated to the line of scrimmage a little bit more than I would normally, and once I saw the hole open up, it was my hole so I just ran in there, and surprise, there was the back. Nature took its course after that."

Bigby could say "it was my hole," and he became the free hitter on the play, because everyone else was holding his proper gap. It was another instance of the teamwork needed to make a key play, and this time it was Bigby's turn to make it.

Those types of plays were few and far between earlier in the season for Bigby, and that didn't sit well with an aggressive player who had compiled 121 tackles, five interceptions, 13 passes defensed and three forced fumbles in his last healthy season of 2007.

{sportsad300}But the more Bigby plays in this defense, the better understanding he's developing of how it all fits together.

"It was frustrating at the beginning," he admitted. "I was out there trying to force plays, things like that. But now I understand my role in the defense, so I just take the plays that come my way, and try to make sure I don't let my teammates down in any way.

"But I feel like I'm finding little cracks where I can sneak my head in and make plays. It took a while but I'm starting to figure it out."

Make no mistake, Bigby would love to make more big plays. He nearly had his second interception of the season in Chicago, when a pass over the middle deflected off the hands of receiver Devin Aromashodu. But Bigby and Collins collided while both diving for it, preventing either from catching the ball.

How about a sack? Bigby's never had one in his career, but in this scheme the Packers are prone to blitz anyone, so it's certainly possible. Williams, Collins, and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris all have sacks this season, and if Bigby can get one, it would mark the first time in franchise history that five defensive backs recorded sacks in the same season.

But for now, if more of those third-and-1's come his way, Bigby plans to be ready. Stops like that, on a tough down-and-distance for the defense, can be likened to a turnover for the way they change momentum and fire up an entire team. Perry acknowledged that Bigby's cat-quick tackle at the line of scrimmage there "lifted everybody up."

"It's plays like that that are going to keep the momentum going for us down the stretch," Bigby said. "We need plays like that to keep us in the right mind, keep us attacking and being aggressive."

While at the same time remembering there are little-known contributions needed on every play to keep this defense clicking, whether noted in the statistics or not.

"Our whole message to these guys is it's going to take a collection of unselfish guys doing their job and not worry about who's getting the credit," Perry said. "We'd be talking out both sides of our neck if we start jumping on a guy for not having 10, 11, 12 tackles a game or two, three passes defensed, because that's not what it's all about.

"It's about us collectively accomplishing one goal. It's going to take all 11 guys doing their job, and sometimes you have to do the dirty work."

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