GREEN BAY, Wis. — Joe Whitt knows exactly what he would do if he were playing against the Green Bay Packers.
“If I was an offensive coordinator of a team that’s about to play us, I would make sure that [the Packers] shored up the vertical control issue that we had last year,” he said.
It’s why the Packers’ cornerbacks coach wanted quarterback Aaron Rodgers to put rookie Kevin King to the test in practice, and why he’s been so hard on his group in training camp this year. He knows his position will largely determine whether the Packers can go a step further than last year’s NFC Championship Game.
“If the quarterback and cornerbacks play well, we’ll win,” Whitt said. “We have a chance to win Super Bowls if those two groups play well. So, I don’t necessarily get excited when we do our job. Now, our job is to make sure that we can cover those guys out there man-to-man and let everybody else do what they do, and when they do throw the ball at us we pull it off of them.”
Whitt knows the Packers can’t have a repeat of last season. They allowed the second-most passing yards per game in the regular season, and that weak spot ultimately ended their season against the high-powered Atlanta Falcons one game short of the Super Bowl.
They were an explosive gain waiting to happen. The Packers define “explosive” as a pass play of 16 yards or more. In that area, no team allowed more explosive plays for touchdowns than the Packers’ 15. Overall, they tied for eighth in most explosive pass plays allowed with 87. Up those numbers to plays of 20 yards or more, and they allowed a league-high 14 touchdowns and 58 pass plays overall (tied for fourth-most in the league). And that doesn’t count what Julio Jones did to them in the NFC title game.
Maybe it was because of injuries to three of Whitt’s key players — Sam Shields (whose Week 1 concussion ended his career in Green Bay), Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins — but general manager Ted Thompson didn’t take any chances that it was something else.
That’s why he used the 33rd overall pick on King, the 6-foot-3 cornerback who’s like no one Whitt has in his room, and why he re-signed physical cover man Davon House after he spent two seasons with the Jaguars.
“We gave up way too many explosive passes, especially on the outside,” Whitt said. “I think we’ve done a good job in camp of holding vertical control when we’re in team-type periods. Balls have gone up, once they have been caught, we’ve been competitive.
“If we continue to practice the way that we have been, hopefully we’ll be able to pull some of those balls off. My thought process is throw a vertical ball, we’re going to intercept it. That’s what I believe.”
It’s not all on the cornerbacks, of course. A formidable pass rush goes a long way toward preventing explosive plays. That was evident in Saturday’s Family Night practice at Lambeau Field. In a drill after backup quarterback Brett Hundley hit tight end Richard Rodgers on a deep ball, the Packers’ front began to get pressure. On back-to-back snaps, second-year defensive tackle Dean Lowry pressured Hundley. One of them forced Hundley to throw quickly, and linebacker Jake Ryan intercepted it. The Packers are counting on Lowry and fellow 2016 draft pick Kenny Clark to make a big jump this season.
“It’s all about affecting the quarterback, and maybe you don’t get a sack but a pressure can force him into a bad decision,” Lowry said. “That’s as important as a sack. I think effective pass rushing has a high correlation to winning games, and that’s been our focus this offseason.”
Until the regular-season opener against Seattle on Sept. 10, it’s all talk.
“I’m not concerned about where we are as far as how people may view it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “The tape has been really good.
“We’re just going to look at it differently because we’re going to have an understanding of how it’s going to fit together when we get ready for Seattle. Unfortunately, we’re not going to practice the things that we’re going to do for Seattle. The fundamentals you will, but there’s moving components to that. At the end of the day it’s about getting players ready to play in games. It’s more of an individual focus; the unit will come together. But I would say the first real, real test will be Thursday night [in the preseason opener] against Philadelphia.”