Joe Whitt is a no-nonsense kind of guy, but the Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach did catch himself daydreaming a bit on Friday afternoon.
As he prepped his guys for Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field – and the super-sized challenge that Lions star wide receiver Calvin Johnson presents – Whitt’s focus was properly on the here and now. But after seeing second-year cornerback Casey Hayward, who’s yet to play a game this season and has been declared out for Sunday with the hamstring injury that dates back to before training camp, do some drill work in practice, Whitt couldn’t help but think about the Packers’ potential in the back end once their leading interceptor from a year ago is healthy.
“Once we get Casey back, it’ll be the first time that we’ve had all the guys at the same time this year,” Whitt said wistfully. “And now we can really figure out how we want to go play some things.”
Even with Hayward sidelined, the Packers have some intriguing options for how they will not only handle Johnson but what they can do with their secondary personnel in general. Starting safety Morgan Burnett, who has yet to play this season because of his own hamstring injury, has been cleared for Sunday, and fourth-year cornerback Sam Shields has come on so strong that he’s now an option if the Packers want to match him up with Johnson.
On top of that, veteran Tramon Williams is moving inside to the nickel corner in sub packages, a wrinkle that Whitt has wanted to try in the past but was concerned about experimenting with because the 182-pound Williams (who is listed at 191) isn’t as big as Charles Woodson, who’d done the same thing throughout his highly decorated Packers career.
But when rookie fifth-round pick Micah Hyde, who was the nickel corner on opening day against San Francisco, showed that he needs some more seasoning before taking on the job, Whitt didn’t hesitate to move Williams and bring Davon House off the bench as the third corner, lining House up outside.
Put it all together, and while Johnson (21 receptions, 312 yards, four touchdowns) is a formidable challenge, the Packers at least have the flexibility to play him a variety of ways Sunday.
Sometimes, Shields will match up with Johnson wherever he lines up on the field, as Shields did against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green during the second half of the Packers’ pre-bye loss to the Bengals. Other times, they’ll let House take Johnson if he lines up on that side, and give him help over the top with Burnett or safety M.D. Jennings. And if Johnson lines up in the slot, the Packers will let Williams cover him there.
“We’ll have different schemes. Like every good receiver you play, you’ve got to be able to change things up because in this league, if you get grooved into just doing one thing, it doesn’t take them long to find the weaknesses of it,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday. “There’ll be times when (Shields) will have that challenge. Obviously when you’re playing against a receiver of his capabilities you’ve got to do a number of things because he’s as talented a receiver as there is in the league.”
Start with Shields, who in a contract year has picked up where he left off last season, when he emerged after an ankle injury as arguably the team’s best cover man. For a player who entered the league as an undrafted free agent with one year of experience at cornerback after playing wide receiver his first three years at the University of Miami, Shields’ development has been remarkable. He enters Sunday with 24 tackles (third on the team), the secondary’s only interception (against Green and the Bengals in the last game) and eight pass breakups.
According to Whitt, Shields asked for the assignment of matching up with Green, which showed just how far he’s come with his confidence.
“I said, ‘You feel good about it?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Go ahead and match him,’” Whitt said of Shields, who despite missing six games last season with the ankle injury had three interceptions in regular-season play, then an interception in each of the team’s playoff games.
“When we moved Tramon inside, he asked to match (Green) and we went with it. The kid has shown the ability. Since he got back from being hurt last year, if you look at the way he’s played in these games, going through the playoffs last year to these first couple games, he’s been as good as anybody.
“A couple years ago, he’s been progressing from becoming a receiver that played DB to actually becoming a corner to now, ‘I can be a corner who can go match.’ Now, is he going to take the next step that, ‘Now I’m a corner who can do whatever is asked’? That’s where the question is.
“Has he reached his ceiling? I don’t think so – and I think that’s a positive thing. I think he still has better football to play, but he’s moving that direction. I don’t think there’s anybody that he’s going to be fearful of.
“Now, this guy we’re going to play this week, everybody better respect Calvin Johnson. Everybody better understand that this man’s skills set is rare. There’s nobody in the league, I don’t care who they are, who wants to go out there and play him by themselves all game, but when you’re assigned to him. You just have to understand what he can do and how your help is helping you out.”
That’s why you won’t see Shields on Johnson non-stop Sunday. Johnson enters the game having caught 65 passes for 1,062 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 career games against the Packers – his highest production in all three categories against any opponent despite having played one more game against Chicago and Minnesota in his career.
“Calvin is different now. There’s only one of him in the league. One guy is not going to be able to shut him down,” Whitt said. “The opportunities that we do match when you are single-high, you have to be up for the challenge. The guys who have that assignment – and it won’t just be Sam. Tramon will match him, as well. It depends on where he aligns that one of those two guys will draw the assignment. You probably will see Sam on him more, but if he lines up inside you’ll see Tramon on him.”
That Williams, who has matched up with Johnson in the past and shut him down on Thanksgiving in 2011, is lining up inside in the sub packages is another interesting development. The only time Williams had ever worked inside previously was during preseason games when Woodson would sit out. Now, he appears to have settled in despite being a bit undersized, recording 14 tackles, one sack, one quarterback hit and one QB hurry.
“It’s a cool spot, I guess. I’ve known the position since I’ve been here, they just didn’t need me in there at any point,” Williams said. “So the opportunity presented itself and I’m ready to play it. It’s actually fun.
“I actually embrace it. I find myself playing, you play differently in that position. You play quicker; everything is quick at that point. If you’re asking me if I feel badly about (not matching up with Johnson), no, because I know those guys will get the job done. It actually works better for the defense. And it shows the growth into the defense. My pride? I don’t have any pride behind it.”
Asked about Williams’ move inside, Whitt said he has been pleasantly surprised by how sturdy he has been and that he sees Williams following in the footsteps of Woodson, who became lethal from the slot corner spot.
“Tramon has a different challenge. He has the challenge that ‘Wood’ had,” Whitt said. “He’s going to be coming on blitzes, he’s going to have opportunities for sacks, fumbles, tackle for losses and the interceptions, so there is no demotion in what Tramon is doing.
“If you look back at the two half-games that he’s really played (there), he’s been productive in the blitz game more than I thought so with him being 182 pounds. That’s been my concern, but he’s throwing his body around, he’s gotten a sack, gotten a hit on the quarterback, he’s pressured, he’s set edges. I wasn’t worried about the coverage game in there because he has short-area quickness; I was worried about the pounding that he would take. And so far, he’s been fine with it. His body’s holding up with it.”
And, of course, there’s the benefit of getting Burnett back. After playing every single defensive snap last season, Burnett signed a four-year, $24.75 million extension this offseason and entered the year as the team’s defensive quarterback. While he was out, the coaches cobbled together a rotation of Jennings, Jerron McMillian and undrafted rookie Chris Banjo, with mixed results. Burnett was especially missed in the opener, when both McMillian and Jennings played poorly and 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin had 208 receiving yards.
Safeties coach Darren Perry called it “huge” to have Burnett back because he “gives you a sense of comfort and a sense of excitement” because of his potential as a difference-maker.
“He’s got the ability to make plays in the run and the pass game. And we look for him taking that next step. We think this is going to be the year,” Perry said. “I think as long as he continues to progress, we’ll be very pleased with the way he plays.”
The hope is that the Packers will feel the same way about the secondary as a whole come Sunday evening.
“I don’t know if you can truly stop (Johnson), but you certainly can do some things to try to limit his explosiveness,” Perry said. “We’ll have our hands full, but our guys are looking forward to the challenge. And just like every week in the National Football League, you’ve got to be at your best. Otherwise, you’re subject to be embarrassed if you’re not.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.