Fixing the Green Bay Packers Defense Must Start at Safety

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IJanuary 7, 2014

Nov 4, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA;  Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) during the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field.  The Packers defeated the Cardinals 31-17.  Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The calamitous season turned in by the safeties of the Green Bay Packers should make it very clear where general manager Ted Thompson needs to begin his defensive fix. 

After an offseason of standing pat at the position, Thompson now needs to pick a safety high in the 2014 NFL draft or get active in free agency. No longer can the Packers sugarcoat the deficiencies of the position, hoping for development from the group of safeties already on the roster.

That was the plan in 2013, and it backed fired badly.

Green Bay was content entering this past season with Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian and Chris Banjo as the team's four safeties. Sean Richardson would later be added. 

A third-round pick in 2010, Burnett was expected to take a tangible jump in his fourth season. Thompson banked on such an improvement, giving the 24-year-old safety a four-year extension worth $24.75 million, with $8.25 million guaranteed, in mid-July. 

Thompson had every reason to believe the light bulb might finally come on for Burnett. LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins—former Packers safeties who became big-time players in Green Bay—all saw their careers take off during their fourth season.

The three previous safeties combined to intercept 23 passes—seven from Butler (1993) and Collins (2008) and nine from Sharper (1999)—during their respective fourth seasons. All three made the Pro Bowl. 

The results this time around were the polar opposite. 

Morgan Burnett Career Statistics
*Suffered Torn ACL in Week 4

Burnett failed to intercept a pass in 2013, finishing as one of just three NFL safeties to have zero interceptions despite playing 900 or more snaps. His last interception came back in Week 13 of the 2012 season, when he picked off Christian Ponder twice in the second half. Take away that game, and Burnett's last regular-season interception came in Week 3 of the 2011 season. 

His lack of ability to take away the football—coupled with the losses of Collins and Charles Woodson—represents the biggest reason why Green Bay dropped from first in the NFL in takeaways in 2011 to 21st in 2013, the lowest ranking since Dom Capers arrived in 2009.

At a position tasked with causing turnovers, Burnett has come up empty.

"There are no dominant traits," one AFC personnel man told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He won't be a difference-maker, but he isn't going to hurt you, either."

That opinion turned out to be only half correct. 

Burnett certainly wasn't a difference-maker in 2013. He played almost 950 snaps and made 96 tackles, the team's second-most. But he failed to intercept a pass or force a fumble, leaving him with just six picks and four forced fumbles over a four-year career.

He also had only five passes defensed, tied with Jarrett Bush for the secondary's fourth-most. His three fumble recoveries led the team, but picking up a loose football is much more about luck than any kind of skill.

The idea that Burnett didn't hurt the Packers is the fallacy.

He missed 11 combined tackles, which trailed only A.J. Hawk's 13, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Opposing quarterbacks targeted him 40 times, completing 29 passes for 414 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating against finished at 135.8, the eighth-worst among qualifying safeties. 

His inability to make a game-changing play certainly hurt Green Bay in the NFC Wild Card Round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Jan 5, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (85) makes a touchdown catch against Green Bay Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett (42) and inside linebacker A.J. Hawk (50)during the second haf of the 2013 NFC wild card playof
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In the fourth quarter, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis on a deep seam route behind the coverage of A.J. Hawk. The 28-yard touchdown gave the 49ers a 20-17 lead. Burnett could have prevented the play, but he was hesitant in rotating to help Hawk, and his attempt to break up the pass came up inches short.

A more confident safety likely breaks on the football and turns a touchdown pass into a difference-making interception. 

It's possible that not having a competent complement alongside him has hurt Burnett's development. 

The Packers inexplicably started M.D. Jennings 17 times in 2013 and 12 in 2012. The defense received next to nothing in return, especially over the last 17 games.

Jennings finished 2013 fifth on the team in tackles (74), but he also failed to intercept a pass or force a fumble. He recovered one fumble and made three tackles for losses, including one sack. 

Packers S M.D. Jennings, 2013 Season
Passes Defensed0
Forced Fumbles0
TD Passes Allowed5
Passer Rating Against148.8
Source: Pro Football Focus

The former undrafted free agent shouldn't be starting for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. 

Jennings allowed 184 passing yards and five touchdowns on just 18 targeted passes against him. His passer rating against was an astronomical 148.8, the third-worst in the NFL and just points away from a perfect rating. He also had nearly as many missed tackles (nine) as stops (11), which PFF describes as a tackle constituting an offensive failure.

Almost unbelievably, Jennings played over 850 snaps but failed to produce a defensed pass. He was the only safety in the NFL to fail to break up or intercept a pass when playing that often. 

In a league with so many safeties playing poorly, Jennings ranked somewhere near the bottom of the bunch.

Combined, Burnett and Jennings produced a season frighteningly devoid of overall impact.

The two combined to play just south of 1,800 defensive snaps in 2013, counting the playoffs. Yet Burnett and Jennings finished the season with zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles, five passes defensed, four tackles for losses and four fumble recoveries. That's an underwhelming season for one safety, much less two.

Opposing quarterbacks certainly liked throwing against the pair. Overall, Burnett and Jennings allowed 46 catches on 60 attempts for 612 yards, nine touchdowns and a passer rating of 148.1. No other safety combination playing more than 1,200 combined snaps was worse in opposing passer rating in 2013. 

Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings Combined in 2013
Forced Fumbles0
Tackles for Losses4
Passes Defensed5
Cmp/Att Against46/60
Passing Yards Against612
TD Against9
Passer Rating Against148.1
Source: Pro Football Focus

The Packers defense as a whole gave up 61 passing plays over 20 yards and another eight over 40. 

Those behind Burnett and Jennings made it difficult to make a permanent switch.

McMillian, a 2012 fourth-round pick, played extensively the first six weeks but then saw nothing but special teams snaps after a bevy of mistakes nailed him to the bench. He failed to produce a turnover before the Packers gave up on him in early December. 

McMillian's release was telling for a team hurting so badly at safety and in a league craving better play at the position. He still doesn't have an NFL job.

Banjo and Richardson, two fan favorites mostly because they aren't Burnett, Jennings or McMillian, showed flashes of being competent players. Banjo eventually became a core special teams asset and Richardson received defensive snaps after returning from a career-threatening neck injury.

Still, the Packers would be borderline insane to bank on either safety becoming a viable starting option for 2014. 

If Thompson really wanted to make a splash at the position, the upcoming free-agency pool looks like it might contain a few upper-level safeties. Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills and T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns are both scheduled to be free agents. 

Byrd, 27, has nine interceptions, 12 passes defensed and five forced fumbles in 27 games since 2012. He'll likely seek a contract that would put him in the upper echelon of safeties. 

Ward, a second-round pick in 2010, has just 10 combined career interceptions and forced fumbles. But he was named a second-team All-Pro in 2013, thanks largely to his unique ability to play both the pass and run well. That will likely bump up his price on the open market.

Both players will be expected to have asking prices well above what Thompson will want to spend, especially after giving Burnett his extension. With Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews eating a significant portion of the cap, the Packers are now in a position where money can't be freely spent or wasted. 

Other free-agent safeties include James Ihedigbo, Chris Clemons and Bernard Pollard. 

The draft is still the most likely avenue for Thompson to provide improvement. 

The Packers completely avoided adding a safety in the 2013 NFL draft, despite the fact that many believed the class was unusually loaded at the position. Green Bay took UCLA defensive end Datone Jones in the first round, while Florida's Matt Elam and Florida International's John Cyprien came off the board shortly after. 

Overall, 12 safeties were drafted in the first four rounds. Thompson didn't contribute to that total. 

The Packers probably can't afford to let a talented player at the position get away this time around. 

Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix figures to be the first safety taken next May. He'll be a sought-after pick for many teams picking before or near Green Bay.

USC's Dion Bailey, Washington State's Deone Bucannon, Baylor's Ahmad Dixon, North Carolina's Tre Boston and LSU's Craig Loston make up the next tier under Clinton-Dix, although it's probably too early to have set rankings on 2014 prospects.

Whether through the draft or free agency, it's almost impossible to envision the Packers not adding a safety at some point this offseason. The status quo had its run.

Fixing the safety position should be of paramount importance to Thompson. He can certainly see the trend developing in the game, with the league's best defenses now featuring the best safeties. To play championship-caliber defense, difference-makers need to be found at the position.

The Packers are lacking at safety more than any position on the defensive side. It's an area Thompson and his staff needs to attack this offseason as another attempt to fix the defense begins.