GREEN BAY – Here’s a quick synopsis of the state of the Packers’ secondary.
1. A young, slot cornerback has been forced to shift to the boundary and is playing the best football of his career.
2. A young, undrafted corner is about to be thrust into a bigger role than he’s ever taken on.
3. A veteran safety is playing wherever he’s asked to.
4. An undrafted safety and special-teams standout has moved into the defensive lineup for a larger workload than anticipated.
It’s not ideal, but it’s the hand the Packers have been dealt as they try to make a playoff push late in the season.
But here’s the thing. If it all sounds familiar, it’s because the description also applied to the Packers’ secondary a year ago around this time, just with a few changed details and some different names.
No. 1 was Micah Hyde in 2016, but it’s Damarious Randall this time.
No. 2 was LaDarius Gunter, now it’s Josh Hawkins.
No. 3 was, and still is, Morgan Burnett.
And No. 4 was Kentrell Brice as a deep safety, but is now Jermaine Whitehead as a dime back.
The point is the Packers have been here before, so no one is fretting over the constant adjustments.
“We knew coming into this year we had a lot of interchangeable guys that can play everywhere,” Randall said. “Right now the versatility is just showing.”
It’s a mix-and-match approach for the Packers, and it’s all they can do, because Kevin King, Quinten Rollins and Brice are on injured reserve, while Davon House is declared out.
The stabilizers within are the veteran safeties, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Burnett. Clinton-Dix has two, and what should have been three, interceptions over the last four games.
Meanwhile Burnett has played slot corner and nitro linebacker among multiple roles. He could get another added to the list this week depending on how the Packers decide to defend Carolina QB Cam Newton’s running game.
Randall has become an additional steady presence, taking his game since October to the level the Packers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2015.
Randall said his approach is “day by day” in search of consistency, and he seems to be finding it. He had a stretch of three straight games with an interception earlier this season, and he’s done an admirable job most recently against Tampa Bay’s DeSean Jackson and Cleveland’s Josh Gordon the last two weeks.
If there’s an X factor this year, it’s probably rookie safety Josh Jones, who snagged his first career interception in overtime in Cleveland last week to set up the game-winning touchdown.
If that’s just the start of a strong stretch run for the 2017 second-round draft pick, the Packers’ defense takes on yet another different look.
“It’s always a confidence-booster to get your first interception, and for him to get it at that point in the game, that’s big,” Randall said. “Hopefully he can build off of it and keep it going.”
The Packers will take any big plays they can get, because while the offenses they will face the rest of the way can make life difficult on a banged-up, shifting secondary, all the unit might need with Aaron Rodgers back in the fold is a momentum-grabbing play here or there to make another strong finish a reality.
“We’re going to have to make plays on the ball,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of the preparation for Sunday’s game against Carolina. “This is one of those games we have to find some way to go out and get the ball taken away. That’s got to be a priority for us. That’s the kind of game we have to play.”
That was the formula a year ago, dealing with the weekly challenge of simply piecing it together on the back end. Yes, the defense eventually ran out of steam, out of time, and out of manageable matchups late in January.
But last year at this point, no one was thinking down the road, only about the next game.
There’s a chance Demetri Goodson gets back in action after more than a year off to help.
It’s a one-step-at-a-time mentality to hold up its end in trying circumstances, and there’s nothing else to do than what Head Coach Mike McCarthy said this week.
“We just have to go play.”