For the first time since the Charles Woodson era ended, the Packers’ secondary may be on the verge of something special. Led by veterans Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields, the Packers re-tooled in recent years by adding HaHa Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall, and Quinten Rollins with top picks in the 2014 and 2015 drafts. Top reserve S/CB Micah Hyde and promising 2015 UDFA Ladarius Gunter round out a secondary group coming off one of its finest seasons for Green Bay in years.
The Packers ranked 9th in the NFL in interceptions with 16 in 2015 (a solid number but still a far cry from the 31 they had in 2011 with Woodson). Looking beyond just turnovers however, Green Bay finished 5th in Pass Completion % allowed (59%), 7th in Opponent QB Rating (80.1), and 9th in forced incompletions (14.6/game).
So why should we expect this same group to rise to the upper echelon of pass defenses in the NFL next season, joining the likes of Denver, Seattle, and Arizona? Most importantly, it starts with the continued ascension of young playmakers who could be on the verge of stardom.
Despite being only a third-year player, Clinton-Dix has already established himself as a premier Safety and helped form the League’s top tandem in the NFL (PFF ranked Burnett and Clinton-Dix as the 4th and 8th best Safeties, respectively, in 2015). Randall and Rollins combined for five picks and 20 passes defended in their rookie seasons. With a year of experience under their belt, the expectation is for them to start turning those defended passes into turnovers. Randall in particular will help mitigate the loss of nickel corner Casey Hayward in Free Agency, as he had experience defending the slot at ASU and has already begun taking reps there in OTA’s.
NFL secondaries can’t thrive based on the talent of their defensive backs alone, however. There are other factors that directly influence how good a pass defense can be, but fortunately for Green Bay, two of these key areas have the potential to improve in 2016.
The first actually has nothing to do with pass defense at all – rather, it starts with stopping the run. Success on early downs puts offenses in predictable situations, enabling DB’s to get aggressive on difficult down-and-distance plays. Green Bay was far too inconsistent in this regard last season, allowing 4.5 yards per carry (29th in the league). New additions Kenny Clark and Blake Martinez, along with further development of 2nd-year starting ILBs Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington, should improve that shaky run defense next season.
Accomplishing this will create a domino effect and enable the second key factor – a consistent pass rush. Green Bay had a respectable 43 sacks last season, but they often came in sporadic bunches. A dependable group of ILB’s will finally enable Clay Matthews to return to his natural OLB position, after amassing only 6.5 sacks last season while playing mostly inside. Even the best DBs in the NFL are hopeless if opposing QBs aren’t facing constant pressure in the pocket. Clay lining up opposite Julius Peppers on every snap next season should help make the secondary’s life much easier next season.
The emergence of a reliable run defense, a consistent pass rush, and ball-hawking playmakers in Clinton-Dix and Randall will all help catapult the Packers’ pass defense to the top of the takeaway leaderboard in 2016.