In the eighth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Packers’ personnel entering the 2011 offseason, we analyze Green Bay’s defensive back situation.
Overview: A strong case can be made for the improvement in the secondary being perhaps the biggest reason behind the Packers’ super success this past season. Head coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL Scouting Combine that late-season injuries in the secondary were primarily responsible for knocking the Packers out of the playoffs two seasons ago against Arizona, when Cardinals QB Kurt Warner had his way with a very bruised and battered unit.
But it was a much different story this year, as a secondary featuring Pro Bowlers Charles Woodson and Nick Collins and Pro Bowl alternate Tramon Williams just kept getting better and better right up through the Super Bowl, in no small part due to the excellent coaching of Darren Perry (safeties) and Joe Whitt Jr. (cornerbacks). Green Bay ranked first in opposing QB rating (67.2), second in interceptions with 24 (one behind New England) and fifth in passing yards per game. The secondary’s strong coverage ability also was a key factor behind the Packers finishing in a tie for second in sacks with 47.
CB Charles Woodson: After becoming more vulnerable on the outside, especially when it came to staying on his feet, the Packers wisely decided to use Woodson primarily on the slot and as an extra linebacker — roles in which he excelled. The 13-year veteran’s interception total plummeted from nine to two in 2010. But he finished third in tackles with 92, registered a career-best five forced fumbles with his great ability to strip the ball and had seven tackles for loss, which tied for the team lead and was his best total as a Packer. In the locker room, Woodson increased his considerable value as the undisputed team leader, continuing to command the utmost respect for his tireless work ethic and devotion to his craft.
CB Tramon Williams: Williams, who was given a well-deserved contract extension late in the season, made a quantum leap in his fourth season, playing as well, if not better, than any corner in the NFC. After leading the Packers with six interceptions and 20 passes defensed in the regular season, Williams further elevated his game in the postseason with three interceptions, including a game-clinching pick vs. Philadelphia and a back-breaking 70-yard TD vs. Atlanta. Displaying great consistency, he allowed only one TD pass all year.
FS Nick Collins: One of the league’s fastest safeties, Collins was named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl after making four interceptions in the regular season and a huge 37-yard interception for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Collins easily could have led the team in picks had he not dropped five interceptions. He is a film-room junkie, a habit he admits he picked up from Woodson, and is a very unselfish team player.
SS Charlie Peprah: Assuming the starting SS role for the injured Morgan Burnett in Week Five, Peprah, who who was re-signed March 4, made the most of the opportunity. Solid but unspectacular, he did a good enough job to seriously warrant consideration for the starting role again next season should he be re-signed. Much better against the run than the pass, Peprah is extremely physical and gives his all on every play.
CB Sam Shields: Following in the lofty footsteps of Williams, a fellow undrafted rookie, Shields looks like a solid No. 1 corner in the making after making steady progress all season in the nickel corner role. Shields can run like a deer, and while he made his share of mistakes, he made just as many dazzling plays and never lost his confidence. A stellar two-pick effort in the NFC title game against the Bears put Shields on the national map.
SS Morgan Burnett: After winning the starting SS job in training camp, Burnett’ play was uneven before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in Week Four. The Packers’ third-round draft pick in 2010 showed no fear in coverage, but his run support left a lot to be desired. If Burnett does not become a lot more physical and continues to shy away from contact, he could have a very hard time reclaiming a starting role.
SS Atari Bigby: It was really a lost season for the hard-hitting Bigby, who is a free agent. For starters, he spent the first eight weeks on the reserve/PUP list following ankle surgery in August. Then he went on to miss six games (three with a hamstring injury and three with a groin injury). The consensus seems to be that Bigby probably will be playing elsewhere next season.
S Jarrett Bush: Still considered a liability in coverage despite an interception that set up a touchdown in the Super Bowl, Bush is a definite keeper on the strength of his strong play in special teams. Bush led the unit in tackles and played with an energy that carried over to his teammates.
CB Patrick Lee: This former second-round daft pick has been a disappointment for the most part, with assorted injuries appearing to have taken their toll. But Lee has never stopped trying, and his effort in the Super Bowl when pressed into action following injuries to both Woodson and Shields should help his chances to fill a back-end spot on the roster next season
CB Brandon Underwood: Underwood has been a disappointment on a number of levels. In addition to failing to show much the past two seasons despite decent tools — he was the front-runner entering training camp for the No. 3 corner job but quickly lost that status — he must deal with the hangover resulting from a sexual-assault charge levied last June (Underwood pleaded no contest to the charge March 2). Unless he makes a dramatic turnaround quickly once camp opens, Underwood could be over and out in Green Bay.
CB Josh Gordy: Gordy, who played with Packers OLB Frank Zombo at Central Michigan, was a free-agent rookie with Jacksonville in 2010 who landed on the Packers’ practice squad. Gordy was activated for the final nine games but hardly played. He seems undersized by normal Packers standard for cornerbacks (5-10½), but has speed and skills that team insiders tell us could lead to a much greater role in 2011.
S Anthony Smith: After being acquired from Jacksonville in mid-October for a conditional seventh-round pick, Smith’s second-go-around with the Packers never really got off the ground. He saw limited action in four games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury and looks like a long shot to be back.
CB Josh Bell: Bell was a total nonfactor who went on injured reserve in early August with a knee injury that didn’t really appear to be of the season-ending variety. The Packers' decision to not offer him a tender before this year's deadline all but signals his departure.
S Anthony Levine: Levine spent the season on the practice squad and reportedly has enough skills to be kept around for another look in training camp this offseason.
Bottom Line: Green Bay’s secondary just might be the best in the league at the moment, taking into account the major strides made by Williams and Shields. Don’t be shocked if the Packers toy with the idea of moving Woodson to safety.