Ten Packers Training Camp Topics: #10 – Who Starts at Cornerback?

Sam Shields is coming off a great 2012 season, but how will he fare in 2013?

Sam Shields is coming off a great 2012 season, but how will he fare in 2013?

Headed into training camp, the Packers’ depth at cornerback is not in question, but which players find the field is something to keep an eye on.

Returning from last season is Casey Hayward, who led the team with six interceptions. Hayward took over as the team’s nickelback when Charles Woodson suffered a broken collarbone, and the rookie went on to finish third in the voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. In May, we put Hayward’s rookie season under the microscope and looked ahead to what he has in store for his sophomore campaign.

The training camp competition at cornerback will feature Hayward battling it out against Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Davon House. But of all possible scenarios, it’s hard to imagine one in which Hayward is the odd-man out.

Last season, the Packers led the NFL in nickel and dime usage. ESPN Stats & Information, the team used five or more defensive backs on 66.8 percent of the plays.

This would suggest that three of the four players will emerge from the competition and become a part of the rotation. However, the team is four-deep at the position for the first time in recent memory, so it’s certainly possible that all four players will see the field, depending on the matchup.

Williams, the now-30-year-old elder statesman of the group, has started 66 games in the past five seasons. But after suffering a shoulder injury in 2011, Williams hasn’t played at 100 percent the past two seasons. According to JSOnline.com, he has worked his way back to being closer to full strength.

And without Charles Woodson in the fold, Williams, in some capacity, will take on a larger leadership role in the secondary.

Question: Which three players “start” at cornerback?

Shields signed his restricted free agent tender to remain with the team in 2013, but he and the Packers have yet to agree on a long-term extension, perhaps in part because they still have a largely unknown commodity in House.

Last summer, the position battle focused on the starting spot opposite Williams. Prior to suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason opener, House appeared to be in line to win the job. Shields capitalized on House being sidelined and, after a disappointing 2012, had a great rebound year.



How to Tackle The Problem Of Tackling?

Imagine you’re a student and you have a practical exam coming up; in this test you’re asked to perform a specific skill and the instructors will not only be grading you for your ability to conceptualize what you are doing and why but to also that you can put it all together and actually get some results.  I’ve been tested this way dozens of times as a undergraduate and graduate student and I can safely say that just because you know what you are doing and why doesn’t always mean you can do it in real life.

The same is true for football players; as instructors to the game, coaches often will be assessing a player’s ability to conceptualize what they are doing and why, but also how well they perform that skill.  And just the same as any other student, just because you know what you are doing and why doesn’t always mean you can do it in real life.  There are countless examples of players who have the mental aspect of football down pat but lack the technique required to be successful in the league.

Now imagine a practical exam where you can study and figure out what you need to do and why, but weren’t actually given a chance to practice that skill before the exam, how well do you think you would do? Again from experience I can tell you you often don’t get the desired results because while your mind knows what to do your body doesn’t have the muscle memory to successfully perform that skill.

So where is this all going?  For football players, that practical exam where they’re given time to study but not to practice is tackling.

“We’re going to put our face in people. We will tackle,” Whitt said when asked if the Packers will actually practice the art of tackling each other in training camp. “We will get that solved. Guys who tackle will be out there. Guys who don’t won’t.” – cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr.

The Packers had a pretty dismal season when it came to tackling (refer to: LeGarrett Blount) and mostly this has been rightly or wrongly been laid on the feet of the defensive secondary.  I’ve mostly attributed this to the defensive backs aiming for “big plays” like interceptions and strips rather than just tackling soundly but for whatever reason; the Packers defense missed a ton of tackles.



Do the Packers Have the Best Cornerback Trio in the League?

There’s a very interesting article about NFL cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus.com that provides some unexpected insights about the trio of Green Bay Packers cornerbacks. Overall, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and even Sam Shields compared very favorably to the rest of the cornerbacks in the NFL.

I see it as a rather ironic development, as last off-season, many Packers followers (including myself) thought cornerback to be one of the Packers’ biggest positions of need. So naturally, Ted Thompson did nothing to address it in the draft, but then miraculously struck gold with UDFA Sam Shields. The combination of Woodson, Williams and Shields would prove to be a point of strength for the Packers in 2010, surprising just about everyone.

The Pro Football Focus article  ranked NFL cornerbacks based on several statistics.  First, they looked at the “times thrown at per coverage snaps.” I would expect this to be reflective of a player’s reputation, and the results mostly seem to bear that out. In the top four are Nnamdi Asomugha, Sean Smith, Asante Samuel and Darelle Revis. No surprise is Charles Woodson also being in the top 20, coming in at #18.

A shocking development, however, is Sam Shields coming in at #9. How in the world was he thrown at so few times? After the first game in Philly, I wrote that Eagles fans should be furious at their coaches for not going after Shields (see the last paragraph here). I was convinced that Shields would be attacked much more frequently as the season progressed. The stats here show it just didn’t happen.

The second interesting stat in the article is the “catch percentage per coverage snaps.” This takes into account total coverage snaps, the amount of times they were thrown at and the number of receptions allowed.  Guess who had the best percentage in the entire league? None other than Tramon Williams. Despite being targeted more than Charles Woodson and even Sam Shields, Tramon trounced the entire league with his coverage skills. We saw a perfect example on the Steelers last play in the Super Bowl – just fantastic coverage.

Looking at some other PFF stats (not in the article) provides even more insight into the play of the Packers’ cornerbacks. Of cornerbacks who were on the field for at least 50% of their team’s snaps, by the PFF overall ranking system, Tramon Williams was the 6th best cornerback in the league, with Sam Shields landing at 25 and Charles Woodson at 41.