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Defensive backs a first-rate bunch | Tramon Williams

August 2, 2011

Aug 1, 2011 | By Bob McGinn | the Journal Sentinel

Photo by: Tom Lynn, Tramon Williams has earned a reputation as a solid cover corner who also forces turnovers, having had a hand in 25.

Aggressive play leads to turnovers

Green Bay – As the Green Bay Packers’ defensive backs made one electrifying interception after another in the postseason, they only added to their larcenous reputation that started upon the arrival of Charles Woodson.

“They are ballhawks,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said Monday. “You see a lot of big-time corners making plays on the ball but not converting them into turnovers. With our guys, when opportunity presents itself, they make plays.”

Boy, do they ever.

When Woodson showed up in 2006, the Packers were fresh from seasons in which they took the ball away a franchise-low 15 times in 2004 and just 21 times in ’05.

Since then, the regular-season takeaway totals have been 33, 28, 28, 40 and 32 as Mike McCarthy’s defense has ranked tied for fifth, tied for 17th, 12th, first and sixth in that category.

Woodson, a turnover machine, has been responsible for an incredible 48 takeaways (interceptions, recovered fumbles, forced fumbles) in five seasons, counting playoffs. Free safety Nick Collins has chipped in with 28 and Tramon Williams, who didn’t replace Al Harris until last year, added 25.

During Super Bowl week, Steelers quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner warned that the Packers’ D-backs went after the ball just like receivers.

After Collins weaved his way through Pittsburgh for a 37-yard touchdown return, the Packers had become the first team in history to take an interception to the house in three straight playoff games.

Taking fewer chances at the urging of his coaches, Woodson intercepted just two last year. For the Packers, he has averaged 16.8 yards on his 30 picks, returning eight for TDs.

Williams, like Woodson a former punt returner, has an even higher average (19.0) on his 19 interceptions and one TD.

In 2008, Collins tied the team record for most interception TD returns (three) as the Packers returned their 22 picks for 685 yards, the sixth highest total in National Football League history.

Collins has averaged 24.7 and scored five times on his 22 interceptions.

And, in the NFC Championship Game, rookie nickel back Sam Shields – a bad-hands wide receiver until his senior year at Miami – got into the act by making two extraordinary picks to thwart Chicago.

Having replaced one non-playmaker in Harris with Williams, the Packers still had to play 16 games last season with overachieving Charlie Peprah at strong safety. It’s seems a foregone conclusion that when Morgan Burnett, 9½ months removed from reconstructive knee surgery, is given the green light, he will be back in the lineup.

A two-year starter at Georgia Tech, Burnett was so attractive to Green Bay partially because he had 14 picks.

This is a secondary that does more than take the ball away. The Packers led the NFL in opponent’s passer rating (67.2) before squeezing their four playoff foes to 67.8.

“We’re a press man team,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said at the Super Bowl. “We get beat so few times in man, when somebody does catch the ball on us, everybody is, like, ‘Whoa.’

“Our No. 1 call is four-man rush and man coverage, zoning off the tight end and the back. Now on third down, we play (Cover) Two Man some and Cover-2. But on first and second downs, we are playing single high (safety) with those guys (corners) manned up.”

Woodson and Collins are coming off their third straight season as Pro Bowl starters, but the best player in the secondary last year was Williams. He might have played his position as well as anyone in the NFL.

“People didn’t throw on Tramon,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, and as Williams’ confidence grew, it became harder and harder for receivers to catch a pass on him.

At 34, Woodson remains the starter on the left outside even though many scouts say his coverage slipped. His speed diminished, he wound up on the ground too much and some of the ploys that used to work no longer did.

What perhaps made the defense, according to the coaches, was Shields’ ability to cover so reliably outside, which enabled Woodson to dominate from the slot. Woodson was inside probably 75% of the time, anyway, and from the slot there is none better.

“Charles goes inside, Tramon and Sam are outside and you’ve got two guys that can run,” Capers said.

There are no plans to move Woodson to safety, according to McCarthy, although he does play there in the “Okie 3” package.

“If you want to sit there and run go routes at (Woodson) all day, go for it,” said McCarthy. “He can still go in there and play one-on-one. He’s a very good ‘off’ player, too . . . his route recognition is as good as I’ve ever been around.”

“Dom said it the best: ‘He’s our Rod Woodson,’ ” Raji said. “The way Dom uses him, the way he takes care of his body, he still has more than a few Pro Bowl seasons left.”

Shields gave up more than his share of plays and made a bunch of mistakes, some of which he couldn’t outrun. Still, the Packers view him as starter material.

“He will be a better player this year . . . but there will still be some (mistakes),” said Capers. “But he’s a serious kid. Doesn’t say much. If he makes an error, it bothers him.”

The proper niche for Jarrett Bush is special teams, and former cornerback hope Brandon Underwood is trying to stay alive at safety.

Pat Lee played better in the second half of the Super Bowl than ever before but lacks some speed to play outside and isn’t durable.

The Packers used a fourth-round draft choice on Davon House because of height and speed. So far, he’s locked in as a left corner only. In college, he wasn’t very physical.

“I’m hoping we can see House make somewhat the same kind of strides that Sam made,” Capers said. “You can’t ever have too many cover corners.”

Another holdover, Josh Gordy, is much faster than Lee and Bush. “We were worried about losing Gordy when we had him on the practice squad,” McCarthy said.

Two weeks shy of his 28th birthday, Collins remains in the prime of his career. He has been among the top two or three safeties in the NFC for the past three years.

“He obviously doesn’t get the attention he deserves in regard to the national spotlight,” Clay Matthews said. “He definitely can play the run game. At the same time, he’s athletic enough to cover the whole field.”

Clearly, Burnett has the ball skills, stature and speed that leave Peprah in the dust. Peprah, however, was a much tougher customer than Burnett, who was shy if not timid about entering piles and throwing his body around.

Pending his legal issues, Underwood’s versatility could win him the No. 4 safety job, although Bush could fill that role as well. Veteran Anthony Smith could be re-signed, too.

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