In the final three games of the year, the Green Bay Packers have the opportunity to salvage the secondary's poor showing all season—if Dom Capers gives Sean Richardson the starting nod at free safety over M.D. Jennings.
Before last Sunday's win over Atlanta, when the Packers had not won a game in five weeks, the secondary seemed like a lost cause.
It had given up an average of 255 passing yards per game in that span, including 10 passing touchdowns, and had amassed a whopping 20 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That doesn't include tackles missed by the front seven.
Then, in the second half of the Falcons game, Capers pulled Jennings in favor of Richardson. The struggling Jennings had missed a tackle on Drew Davis early in the second quarter after Morgan Burnett blew his coverage, which resulted in an Atlanta touchdown to tie the game.
By Pro Football Focus' count, Richardson played a career-high 39 snaps during Sunday's game, in which he had three tackles, one of which constituted an offensive stop. When Capers inserted him into the lineup over Jennings, he moved Burnett to free safety and Richardson played at strong safety, closer to the line.
The move played to one of Richardson's most noted strengths in his limited playing time: his physicality, which Mike McCarthy and Capers both spoke about after the game.
"Very aggressive. I liked what he did on defense," McCarthy said of the 6'2", 216-pound Richardson, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tyler Dunne. "Sean brings an attitude, an energy, juice."
Attitude, energy and juice—exactly what the secondary has been lacking this season.
"He's got a physical presence to him in terms of being able to step up in there," Capers told Dunne.
The Falcons game was an important showing for Richardson, who has only played 61 snaps this year throughout three games after being activated off the PUP list on November 23. Richardson injured his neck in Week 12 of the 2012 season and required cervical spinal fusion surgery in January 2013.
As recently as July 26, 2013, Rob Demovsky (then at the Green Bay Press-Gazette) reported that the Packers had not yet cleared Richardson to return. He was finally cleared in late October, and the reason why, according to Tom Silverstein and Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, is likely because his surgery fused the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae, which are lower in the spine than the C-3 and C-4 vertebraes on which Nick Collins had fusion surgery, ending his career in Green Bay after the Packers wouldn't clear him to return.
Richardson's enthusiasm at being back on the field, combined with his natural athleticism, were obvious on Sunday. He was exactly where he needed to be. In the screenshot below, of the All-22 film from the Falcons game, he is already in motion to contain Jacquizz Rodgers before the handoff.
When Rodgers moves to cut to his left, inside linebackers Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk are still set to block the left "A" gap and right "C" gap, respectively. Richardson is the only defender in a position to adjust his route based on Rodgers, and he makes the tackle.
Richardson's size makes his especially well suited to playing the run, and if the Packers don't give him the opportunity to start over Jennings this Sunday against Dallas, it may well be because they anticipate a passing attack from the Cowboys. If they turn to DeMarco Murray, though, expect the bigger Richardson—a "big-safety, small-linebacker type of guy," according to Capers per Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette—to be put in.
Jennings' poor performance so far this season, however, is reason enough to give Richardson the start either way.
He's also allowed the sixth most touchdowns (four) and has seven missed tackles on the year out of 46 total, which means he misses 15 percent of his attempted tackles.
As of Wednesday, Capers wouldn't say whether or not Richardson would get the starting nod over Jennings, instead telling Vandermause, "We'll continue to work him. You think about it, he's only been back here a few weeks now. But we've played him...and so he'll have another week of practice, and I can see him playing more possibly this week."
Considering the secondary had perhaps its best showing of the season in the second half against Atlanta, the Packers should give Richardson an opportunity to prove he was a big part of it and has the potential to turn the unit around in the final three weeks.