Commentary

Improved safety play key to Packers' resurgence

After enduring some growing pains, especially at safety, the Packers' secondary has jelled into a formidable unit, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: January 15, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Atari Bigby and Nick CollinsGetty Images The maturation of safeties Atari Bigby and Nick Collins has made the Packers' D stronger up the middle.
Since coming to the Green Bay Packers in 2003, cornerback Al Harris has been getting in the face of opposing receivers.

Harris is a pressing, man-to-man machine. His style is to play receivers tight and challenge them to beat him. At the beginning, Harris worked with Mike McKenzie, who was eventually traded to New Orleans. For the past two seasons, Harris and Charles Woodson have formed one of the league's best one-two combinations.

But the "in your face"' Packers were a little red-faced early in the season. Because the Packers use man-to-man coverage schemes so frequently, safeties Atari Bigby and Nick Collins were being manhandled by tight ends. Antonio Gates of the Chargers caught 11 passes for 113 yards against Green Bay. Chris Cooley of the Redskins had nine catches for 105 yards. Tony Gonzalez of the Chiefs had 10 catches for 109 yards.

In the first half of the season, the Packers' secondary was strong at the corners and weak up the middle, similar to a sub-.500 baseball team. Whether the cause was a second-half schedule of teams that didn't have exceptional tight ends or improved chemistry as the season progressed, the Packers' secondary has grown tight as a unit and is hard to beat.

"In the second half of the season, our main focus was improving against tight ends,'' Collins said. "In the first half, tight ends were working us so we came in and said, 'OK, we'll have a game plan for the tight ends and take them out of the game.'"

The results have been impressive. During the divisional playoff victory over Seattle, Seahawks tight end Marcus Pollard had only one catch for 3 yards. No tight end has caught more than two passes against the Packers since Week 13 (Dallas' Jason Witten).

True, the Packers haven't been playing an all-star lineup of tight ends down the stretch. They played the Lions, a team that doesn't feature a tight end, twice in the second half of the season. The Bears completed only three passes to their two tight ends -- Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark. Raiders rookie Zach Miller had only one catch.

Even the NFC Championship Game offers the secondary a break. The Giants' upset of the top-seeded Cowboys means Green Bay will avoid facing Witten, a Pro Bowler who caught six passes for 67 yards in a 37-27 victory over the Packers.

The Giants come to Lambeau Field without Jeremy Shockey, who's on the injured reserve list. Kevin Boss has shown some promise, but he's a rookie who caught only nine passes during the regular season. But even if Boss came to town with a better résumé, the Packers feel they would be prepared.

"We were working on the tight end the second half of the season,'' Collins said. "We play more man [coverage] against them than most teams, and a tight end doesn't like for a guy to be in his face the entire game. We've been going out there getting our hands on the tight ends, slowing them down.''

Packers coach Mike McCarthy has been trying to put together this secondary for the past couple of seasons. In 2006, he pulled safety Marquand Manuel out of free agency for $2 million a year, but that didn't work. Woodson solidified the cornerback spot when he was signed, also in 2006. Collins was learning on the job. Bigby came out of nowhere at the start of camp this past summer and won the strong safety job.

"We have just steadily improved because we've been together now this whole year,'' Woodson said. "We played well. We got guys who are learning the game and knowing what to expect from offenses. We're getting things done in practice.''

Safety is a tough position for the Packers because of the man-to-man responsibilities. Ask Manuel. Seattle ran a basic Cover 2, and Manuel fit in perfectly there. He read defenses and worked well with teammates in film study, helping the Seahawks go to the Super Bowl after the 2005 season.

In Green Bay, Manuel's athletic limitations were exposed, and management gave up on him one year into his five-year contract. Collins, a former second-round choice, had the man-to-man skills to flourish in Green Bay. Bigby, though young and occasionally too aggressive, had the speed and skills to do well.

"Our scheme puts a lot of pressure on our safeties,'' Woodson said. "The safeties have to make sure guys aren't getting free releases and are getting downfield. With us, it's how much man don't we play as opposed to how much man we do play.''

The Packers do, however, vary schemes to alleviate some of the pressure. Woodson, for example, said he's occasionally asked to play a little safety in certain coverage packages to help with the man-to-man responsibilities.

"I just do it all,'' Woodson joked. "I'm like seasoning. You put me in and I'll make it better."

The addition of Woodson has made the secondary better for the past two seasons. Harris made his first Pro Bowl this season, and Woodson is on standby for a possible return as the NFC's first alternate. Collins isn't going to the Pro Bowl, but he's on the radar, having been voted as a fourth alternate. Woodson allowed less than 50 percent of the passes thrown against him to be completed and didn't allow a touchdown pass.

As a group, the Packers believe their secondary could evolve into one of the better units in football.

"There is a big change in us from last year to this year,'' Collins said. "Last year, it was all new to us. Everybody wasn't on the same page. This year, everybody knows what's going on while we are on the field. We have an understanding of the system. Everybody is coming in and studying so we can be on the same page when we are out there on the field.''

Said Woodson: "I think our safeties took the problems they were having against tight ends personally. The corners are good on the outside, so teams are going to test how the tight ends are covered.''

Of late, everything has been covered for the Packers.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer