Safeties Burnett, Woodson only sure starters in Packers' defensive backfield
GREEN BAY Going into their third preseason game, the Green Bay Packers' defensive backfield is anything but settled.
This much the Packers know: Morgan Burnett will start at one safety spot and Charles Woodson will play alongside him, at least when the base defense is on the field. Tramon Williams is their top perimeter cornerback.
Beyond that, jobs are up for grabs headed into Thursday night's game in Cincinnati.
"I would say it's even," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday. "I think the way we distribute reps Thursday will probably reflect that. And once again, it's really the same answer whether you're talking about the corners, the safeties, a number of different positions. It's important for us to try to play those guys as much as we can to make sure they have a full opportunity to make our team or to compete for positions."
While Williams is set at one outside cornerback spot for the Packers, it's not clear who will win the other job.
Among the Packers' options are veteran Jarrett Bush, who is known primarily for his special-teams skills, plus Sam Shields, second-round rookie Casey Hayward and others. Another option, second-year player Davon House, is out with an injury.
At safety beyond Burnett and Woodson, the Packers have second-year player M.D. Jennings, fourth-round rookie Jerron McMillian and former practice squad player Anthony Levine in the mix.
As of Tuesday, those competitions clearly were on the minds of McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson.
"I'll tell you this right now, I just talked about it this morning, two different times, talked to Ted on the field," McCarthy said. "The corner, safety position has not been set yet. These guys need to play. They need to play Thursday night and hopefully all play well."
Woodson has played several different positions during his time in Green Bay, but the Packers plan to have him play more safety this year after losing Pro Bowler Nick Collins, who sustained a significant neck injury last season and was released in the offseason. The Packers also released veteran Charlie Peprah.
Woodson is expected to cover the opposing team's slot receiver on passing downs, and it's not clear who will line up beside Burnett in those situations.
"Obviously, the guys who are going to be out there on Sundays, you want those guys to work together as much as possible, but I don't think there's a sense of panic and sense of pressure to have it done by this particular date because you want to make the best decision," said assistant Darren Perry, who coaches the Packers' safeties.
"We knew it wasn't going to be an easy decision. These guys are right there, they are very, very close and they're all deserving. It's going to come down to whoever is going to be the most productive and give us the best chance."
And while McMillian is making a significant jump up from Maine to the NFL, Perry said the game hasn't looked too big for him so far—just as it didn't for Burnett when he started as a rookie in 2010 before sustaining a season-ending left ACL injury.
"This kid, he can play," Perry said. "Again, he's still learning and still not there yet, but there's some guys you realize they can handle it. He's very poised for a young player; still not quite there yet as with most rookies. I think if you go back and ask Morgan where he was as a rookie and we started him, he'd be the first to tell you he was still swimming out there and kind of feeling his way. Some things as a coach you don't want to know, but you just have to roll with it."
The Packers' cornerback competition has been disrupted by a shoulder injury to House, who has been ruled out for Thursday night's game.
"We're still in the process," said assistant Joe Whitt, who coaches cornerbacks. "This is a big game for everybody. I'm excited to go watch them represent themselves and put their case (forward) for why they deserve to be that guy—or those guys, in different packages. But as of right now, I couldn't tell you who's over who. The process is not complete yet. We'll know that at the end of the Kansas City (final preseason) game."
Whitt said the fact that the Packers haven't selected a starter isn't an indication that they're short on options.
"I think what's happened is, everybody has stepped up their game, and with everybody stepping up their game, it has really made it (tough)," Whitt said. "Nobody has separated themselves, but I believe everybody is playing at a level that they're deserving. But there hasn't been a separation yet, and they have two more opportunities under the lights to separate themselves."