GREEN BAY — How serious are the Green Bay Packers about tackling their, um, tackling problems this season?
Look no further than the practice plan for the cornerbacks when the Packers put on pads for the first time in training camp Saturday.
“As you could see,” second-year cornerback Davon House said, “the first drill that the corners did was a hitting drill. We got at it a little bit.”
Before you start applauding wildly, however, there is one thing you might want to consider. With the Packers preaching the need for physical play from their defense in general and the cornerbacks in particular, Jarrett Bush’s stock is on the rise. Indeed, with the move of Charles Woodson to safety, Bush has been a starting cornerback in the team’s first three practices.
If that doesn’t elicit a collective gulp from Packers fans, nothing will. That’s because Bush, not unlike tight end Jermichael Finley and linebacker A.J. Hawk, is one of those polarizing figures that fans either love or hate. Even when they make good plays, such as Bush’s interception in the Super Bowl 18 months ago, all some people want to do is fixate on the bad ones.
Fans don’t choose the lineup, though, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy is giving Bush the first crack at the starting spot vacated by Woodson in large part because Bush loves to hit. With everyone donning pads Saturday, he punctuated the lively practice with a number of stinging shots.
“I just get a little revved up,” Bush said. “First day in pads, so I just tried to make my mark. This is what I’m known for, it’s who I am and it’s my bloodline. That’s just part of my character and I try to just bring that to the defense.”
Actually, the question isn’t whether Bush can make the defense more physical, it’s whether he can cover wide receivers when he is put on an island outside. Bush has become a special teams monster, but limitations in coverage relegated him to the role of extra back in nickel and dime situations during his first six NFL seasons.
On the surface, it looks like the Packers are content to trade cover ability for tackling ability by handing the job to Bush. That won’t fly in the pass-happy NFL, however, which is why Bush will have to improve in coverage significantly for this whole plan to work.
Bush said his physical ability is no issue in covering receivers and that he has made his greatest strides in “just understanding the defense, understanding what the offense is trying to do to you.”
Last season, Bush was primarily the dime back until the Packers tired of nickel back Sam Shields’ soft tackling and coverage breakdowns. Bush replaced Shields in many nickel situations late in the season and even started the playoff game against the New York Giants. That allowed him to “hit the ground running” this season.
“I feel extremely confident in what I’m doing,” he said.
Saturday, Bush was the outside cornerback opposite Tramon Williams in the base and nickel defenses and a slot corner along with Woodson in the dime. Shields was the outside corner in the dime, but was replaced by House after he was beaten in coverage several times.
Figuring out the secondary has become just as important as locating a pass rush for the beleaguered Packers defense. Williams looks strong again after his play was hindered by a shoulder injury last season and the time was probably right for Woodson to move inside more. But Shields, so good as an undrafted rookie in 2010, has been in decline ever since. House and rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward made impressive plays Saturday and are options should Bush fail.
When Bush hit free agency over the winter, he drew interest from Arizona and the New York Jets before he re-signed. Many fans cringed when the Packers gave a three-year, $5.25 million contract to a special teams player, but it turns out McCarthy had bigger plans for Bush.
“Jarrett Bush has always been one of our most physical players,” he said. “That was exemplified on special teams and he’s getting an opportunity to compete at corner, and he’s doing a very good job. He’s played nickel and dime in the past and I think it’s important to give Jarrett an opportunity to focus in on a position or two. I think that was a mistake that I’ve made with him in the past was try to do too much with him.”
Now that Bush has grasped the defense, the job is his to lose.
“(He’s an) extremely physical, competitive player and clearly one of the favorites as far as a man that comes to work every day and you definitely get everything that he can possibly give you on a daily basis,” McCarthy said. “I’ve always appreciated his play.”
Hopefully, McCarthy will still be saying that in December.