Saturday, August 4, 2012

2012 Packers Training Camp, Volume 5: Cornerbacks

Heading into camp, the corner position is one that will certainly provide some heavy competition and likely changes as the 2012 season begins.  With the long speculated and recent movement of Charles Woodson to safety, that conceivably opens a spot to be filled.  The team returns last year starter Tramon Williams (right), who struggled in 2011 after suffering an injury to his shoulder in week 1.  It was an injury  that hampered him much of the rest of the season.  It prevented him from being his usual aggressive self and he was not able to make some of the plays that elevated him to being a top corner in the league the season prior.  Williams certainly will be at one of the starting corner positions when this season opens up, barring injury.  When asked about his shoulder, he quickly shrugged it off and maintains that it’s not an issue any longer.  The team and fans hope that is the case and the “old” Tramon is back in 2012.  That is the Tramon Williams who was coined the team’s “shut down” corner and who played out-of-this-world during the postseason following the 2010 season.  He posted 3 interceptions during those playoffs, one of which sealed the win at Phily in round 1.  The second occurred the following week in the end zone at Atlanta as he made an incredibly timed and athletic leaping grab to prevent a touchdown.  The third came just minutes later in that same game as he stepped in front of a Matt Ryan pass just before half and took it to the house to start the route of the Falcons in round 2.  Last season, Williams could be seen shying away from contact at times, an obvious side effect of the shoulder injury.  Still, the coaching staff felt having him out there was a better option than any other due to his smart play and play-making abilities.  One such example was during a game in San Diego.  QB Phillip Rivers threw a quick out which Williams easily stepped in front of (an obvious result of good film study and anticipation) and scampered uncontested into the end zone.  He has the ability to make those types of plays at any time.  If he is truly 100% healthy this year, expect better production from Tramon.

Also returning are Charles Woodson, Jarrett Bush, Sam Shields and Davon House.  Added to the mix is 2nd round draft choice Casey Hayward out of Vanderbilt (left).  With Woodson moving to “safety” (see my volume 1 report) and because the defensive formations call for so many lineup variations, let’s focus on the others as we break down the corner battle.  Jarrett Bush has emerged as the 3rd (or in some cases 2nd) corner on the depth chart in the early stages of this training camp.  This was previously a spot occupied by Sam “Sticky” Shields, but Shields has had his struggles this year during OTA’s and in camp so far.  Bush has also had his share of obstacles to overcome, having struggled in coverage in the past.  Still, his value to the team has remained high since joining the team in 2006.  Besides his work as a defensive back, Bush has become a stand-out on special teams and specifically punt coverage.  In 2011, Bush came on as the star of the punt team and was able to help the defense out by burying the opposition deep in their own territory.  As one of the gunners , he often outran double coverage and was able to get in position to keep the ball out of the end zone.  You may also recall it was Bush who stepped in front of a Ben Roethlisberger pass for a timely interception during Super Bowl XLV.  He was in on the final play to help break up a pass intended for Mike Wallace and seal the championship for the Pack.  As mentioned, Bush has had his struggles in coverage.  He has been found out of place and a step behind speedy receivers, which has cost the team at times.  The team has, in the past, used Bush interchangeably at both corner and safety, something that Head Coach Mike McCarthy admits may have been part contributor to some of Bush’s issues.  MM has stated that he plans to use Bush strictly as a corner this season.  Whether by his own performance or because of Shields’ struggles, Bush finds himself as the team’s nickel corner and should this stick, he will be called on often to stifle opposing passing attacks.  Being a corner in Green Bay is a daunting task these days.

With top QB’s Jay Cutler and Matt Stafford in the division and with the NFL becoming more of a passing league, there will certainly be an aerial attack to counter.  Bush needs to take his game to the next level and prove that he deserves his spot on the depth chart and that he can be counted on when needed.  Sam Shields (right) joined the team in 2010 as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Miami.  Shields as a wide receiver in college and was converted to DB when his coaches noticed his speed and knack for getting after the football.  He quickly became the Pack’s nickel back and despite some early struggles, was able to develop into a solid cover man.  He has continued his ball-hawking style since coming to the NFL, posting 6 interceptions in 2 seasons.  Shields considers himself a play maker and is always looking to turn those INT’s into points when he can.  It cost him in 2011 after an interception in the end zone against Denver.  As he tried to return the pick, Shields was blindsided by an opposing tackler and suffered a concussion.  He was forced to miss some time and learned a tough lesson to be smart with the ball in his hands.  Shields picked off a Caleb Haine offering late in the NFC Championship game at Chicago and instead of downing himself to secure the win, he attempted a return.  As he was tackled, the ball came out although it was unclear if it was a fumble or not.  Another Packer player fell on the ball, securing possession so it became moot but is another example of some carelessness that has plagued him at times.  Shields will need to start to mature and display good decision making in his 3rd year.  He has been struggling in training camp so far, being repeatedly beat by the Pack wide receivers.  On one play, he was reportedly juked “out of his shoes” by Donald Driver, who isn’t known as much for his speed anymore.  With Shields’ primary strength being his speed and athleticism, he will find himself hard-pressed for playing time if those skills fail him now.  He will be one to monitor throughout camp although I fully expect him to be on the team’s final roster and on the field in 2012.  With the addition of Casey Hayward via the draft, Davon House seems to have slipped into anonymity after making a splash in last year’s training camp.  But I have a feeling he won’t be letting anyone forget him anytime soon.  House had a dazzling interception for a touchdown during last year’s Family Night practice and immediately raised hopes that he can be an eventual regular in the Pack’s secondary.  With Woodson aging and inevitably needing to be replaced, House provided hope that he might be that guy.  House played very sparingly in 2011, spending most of the season studying incumbent starters Woodson and Williams.  He was highly regarded by the Pack as their 4th round selection in the 2011 draft (New Mexico State).  2012 seems primed to be the year he starts to see some time on the field.  The Pack aren’t rushing him along and the sentiment last season was that he wasn’t quite ready for game time.  With a strong showing in camp this year and amidst Shields’ struggles, he could catapult himself up the depth chart.  Watching him reminds me a lot of a former Packer cornerback, Al Harris.  He has a bit of a Tramon Williams-style as well which bodes well for the team as they continue to stock up on ball hawking defensive backs.  House has exceptional speed, posting a sub 4.4 in his 40 yard dash at last year’s combine.  The tools appear to be there and now with a full year in the defense, it’s his time to emerge.  My initial thought is that Shields will hang onto the 3rd spot on the depth chart behind Bush and with House hot on his trail just behind.  Lastly is Hayward.  Hayward lists at 5’11” and 188 lbs.  He was a corner at Vandy but there have been some rumblings that he might make a better safety at the pro level.  He would need to put on some bulk to do so but this could help his chances of seeing the field more often.  It would also give the Pack 2 versatile DB’s in Hayward and Woodson who can line up in multiple spots.  As I have mentioned before, Dom Capers’ defense calls for some unique variations in the way the DB’s are used so defining any as a corner versus a safety really is irrelevant at times.  Hayward’s scouting report is that he’s a smart player (a recurring theme of Thompson draft picks) and has the ability to recognize routes and stay with his man in coverage.  He has good ball skills and gets after the point of attack well.  His run support skills are considered above average.  He does have average speed and doesn’t transition out of the back pedal as fast as many others so he will likely need safety help with  faster wideouts.  He’s a durable player and hasn’t had much in the way of injury history.  My guess is that Hayward will be given an opportunity to compete for a spot at either corner or safety but will likely be brought along much the way House was.  The team will give him time to absorb the defense and understand the scheme before throwing him out there right away.  He will almost certainly see time on special teams.  At this point, I would put Hayward at the bottom of the depth chart at both spots but a certainty to be on this team’s active roster this season.

With so many options and no shortage of talent, the Packers secondary should be improving on their 2011 output where they gave up way to many big plays and large chunks of yardage.  A big key will be 3rd down stops and getting off the field to give the high-powered offense another crack at the end zone.  Another focus will be the blitz and the efficiency of getting to the quarterback.  Last year, DB’s had just 4.5 sacks and were often required in coverage due to the lack of pressure from the defensive front.  Hopefully this year Capers can turn his speedsters loose and get them after the QB to create havoc and create turnovers.  Injuries aside, expect to see an improved group of corners in Green & Gold this season.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

- Jason Perone (@WSB_Jason)

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