Lambeau Leap of Faith

May 30, 2010 12:53 AM

Position Analysis, Part VII: Defensive Backs

The Green Bay Packers had a dozen defensive backs see playing time in 2009, one of the chief reasons they were lit up by the likes of Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, and Brett Favre twice: Few NFL teams can withstand injuries that force them to play that far into their bench, Hall of Fame level quarterbacks, and deep receiving corps.

The cornerbacks were analyzed over on Bleacher Report, and the analysis backfield as a whole can be seen on PackerChatters. Here, all players listed as safeties or defensive backs in 2009 are graded; bear in mind that players are graded on a curve based on expectations before the season started.

Nick Collins: A (44 tackles, nine assists, one sack, 19 passes defensed, six interceptions, two fumbles recovered)

Collins made the Pro Bowl again in 2009, and for good reason. He was tied for 19th in the league in passes defensed, fifth in picks, and fourth in fumbles. Among free safeties, he was third in passes defensed and interceptions while tying for second in fumble recoveries.

Little more could be asked of Collins--while he does take a few chances in coverage that lead to bigger plays, it also pays off in terms of turnovers. He already may be the second best Packers safety since the Lombardi era.

Atari Bigby: B (37 tackles, 12 assists, 12 passes defensed, four interceptions)

4221199273_8a7bdc5d1a.jpgBigby missed three games because of injury (he also missed two starts, but only because of the defensive package used for the first play of the game). Because it was the second straight season he has missed time, the Packers drafted Morgan Burnett to augment the position.

But some Packers fans are under the mistaken impression Bigby was not good enough when he was in the game; facts do not bear that out. In fact, despite playing only 80 percent of the season, Bigby ranked fourth in the league among strong safeties in passes defensed and tied for third in interceptions.

The defense was much better with his intimidating hitting, both against the run and the pass. It also improved greatly over 2008, when it was frequently gashed by tight ends--more the responsibility of a strong safety than any other single defensive player: Last season, tight ends managed 62 catches (under four per game) and 742 yards (under 12 per catch) and six touchdowns despite including Pro Bowl-level talents like Vernon Davis, Kellen Winslow, Todd Heap, Heath Miller, and Jason Witten. Three of the six touchdowns to tight ends were thrown by Favre, who not only loves to go to them but has the threat of Adrian Peterson to open up passes to them.

That being said, the Packers were statistically better off in coverage (albeit against pedestrian tight end units for Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Minnesota) with Collins and Martin: In the three weeks Bigby did not play, they managed 10 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown, lower averages in all three categories. And while it may seem harsh to downgrade a guy because of getting hurt, ultimately one who cannot play every game is not as valuable.

Trevor Ford: B+ (two tackles)

Considering Ford was not on any active roster of the 32 NFL teams until late November and had never played a down in the NFL before this season, merely getting on the field was an accomplishment, much less recording two tackles. However, no player who had so little impact can receive an A of any kind, no matter how little was expected of them.

Josh Bell: C+ (five tackles)

While not much was expected of a guy who was taken off the street, I cannot give even a B to a player that gets no passes defensed while having a touchdown scored by the man he was covering, especially when he has started five games in his career, albeit for the awful Denver Broncos defense of 2008.

Matt Giordano: C (two tackles)

Giordano was on the team from the beginning of the season, even if he was not active. Thus, considering the injuries to the secondary and struggles of many of the players the team tried, managing just two tackles and no passes defensed in five games is nothing to be especially proud of; in fact, had he been better, perhaps the team would not have felt the need to try players like Bell and Ford.

Derrick Martin: D (20 tackles, five assists)

Martin does not get much credit for expectations since he is a former starter and was brought in to push Bigby for playing time. He officially only started one game, but in two others was only not on the field for the first play because of specialized defensive packages--i.e. he was really the starter for three. He also received playing time in other defensive sets as well as in the blowout victory over Seattle and as Dom Capers was scrambling to find backs who could defend the Steelers; given that, not having one pass defensed is unacceptable.

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