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Packers’ nickel and dime defensive sets still subject to change

By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Trying to figure out the hierarchy in the Green Bay Packers’ secondary is a little like staring down at a freshwater lake.

On top it’s clear and uncomplicated, but down at the bottom it’s murky and crowded with all types of critters jockeying for position in an evolutionary fight to the finish.

The Packers know that Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett are solidly entrenched in their positions on defense, but when it comes to the other spots that form the ranks of coordinator Dom Capers’ three primary groupings, nothing could be more unsettled.

There is so much youth and inexperience beyond the big three that the coaches are going week-to-week deciding who will fill the open spots. Whom they played and where they played them last week doesn’t mean anything going into this week.

“There’s competitive situations that go on throughout your football team all season,” coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday as the team prepared for its Thursday night game against the Chicago Bears. “Some you’d like to see rectified earlier than others.

“But we still don’t play with just 11 players on offense and defense. It’s really part of that.”

It is also because no single player has stood out so much that Capers feels he has to have him on the field every game.

Against San Francisco on Sunday, Capers completed his starting base unit with Jarrett Bush at right cornerback. But when he went to five defensive backs, third-year cornerback Sam Shields and second-year safety M.D. Jennings entered the game and Bush went to the bench.

When he went with six defensive backs, Bush came back in the game.

Before the game ended, Capers was unhappy with Jennings’ play and replaced him with rookie safety Jerron McMillian.

What he got out of the whole thing was an uneven performance in which Shields played fairly well, Bush and Jennings struggled and McMillian did his best to not make any critical errors. On at least two occasions there were busted coverages that played a role in two 49ers touchdowns.

It’s a situation where the three mainstays are waiting for the others to catch up so the defense can stop letting quarterbacks like Alex Smith post passer ratings of 125.6.

“It is, but at the end of the day, we’ve been young for a long time,” Williams said. “We can’t keep using the same excuse. Guys have to step up. Whenever that guy steps up, whoever that might be, you’ll know. We’re a work in progress.”

This week, there’s no telling if Capers will stick with some combination of those who played Sunday or consider playing two more rookies, second-round cornerback Casey Hayward and undrafted safety Sean Richardson.

At some point — probably not this week but maybe the Seattle game Sept. 24 — second-year cornerback Davon House will return from a dislocated shoulder, adding yet another variable to the equation. House tested his shoulder in bump-and-run coverage serving on the scout team Tuesday and McCarthy said he did very well.

House’s injury is really what set off the open competition. He looked to have the starting position opposite Williams locked up with a strong start to training camp and solid performance against San Diego in the first exhibition game.

But after he went down, Bush, Shields and Hayward were forced to compete for a starting job rather than just nickel and dime positions. All three have different body types and different strengths, but none stood out and so the Bush-Shields combination was used in the opener.

If House comes back at 80 percent — he’ll be wearing a restrictive brace on his shoulder — it could settle things down. But if he turns out to be yet another guy who might be good in one situation and not in another, the competition might just keep going.

McCarthy dismissed the notion that all the rotating in the secondary was affecting continuity, and his message earlier in the week was that players with specific roles have to make sure they’re doing them regardless of how small they might be.

“I definitely don’t think it’s an inhibitor,” McCarthy said of rotating players. “All players would like to be on the field the full time the defense or offense is on the field. I understand that and maybe it would help them get in a rhythm.

“But frankly, the players are responsible for their performance in a competitive situation and how much they’re going to play.”

What McCarthy is facing is part of the pitfalls of remaking the roster each year with large numbers of rookies. It takes time for those players to develop, and aside from Woodson there isn’t a single guy in the secondary who made an impact in the NFL his rookie season.

For their part, the rookies are trying to seize on every opportunity. McMillian, for instance, got his shot when Jennings struggled and may find himself on the field Thursday night trying to defend immensely talented receiver Brandon Marshall.

“Week in and week out, you’re always competing for a spot,” McMillian said. “That’s just how it goes. You can’t be complacent or settle down because the next man is working hard to be in the same position you’re in.

“If you’re going to make a mistake, make sure you’re going 100 percent. You have to go full out and do it. You can’t go through the game like ‘I can’t make this mistake.’ You’re giving up a lot if you’re not playing as fast as you want to.”

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