GREEN BAY, Wis. — Training camp is often a game of chicken for safeties.
When the ball’s in the air, they react, speed to the ball and slide by. There’s minimal contact and no full takedowns. Guys like Morgan Burnett must show mercy.
“But once those lights come on and it’s the game,” Burnett said, “the leash is off. You do what you have to do and hit hard.”
This summer, that leash is tightening in a hurry.
With fullback John Kuhn (ankle sprain) leaving practice Monday, the Green Bay Packers have 19 players sidelined with injuries. Coach Mike McCarthy has been forced to tame contact and condense his precious practice time and cut at least two recent sessions short.
Not exactly ideal for a team so gung-ho about improving its tackling. Since the spring, coaches have made that a priority. Those who will not tackle will not play. Now, the most violent player on the team — inside linebacker Desmond Bishop — is probably out for the season. Also, cornerback Davon House will miss at least two weeks.
There was a tint of helplessness in McCarthy’s voice after a recent practice. McCarthy said he has never dealt with this many players injured in camp.
“This is not what you’re looking for,” McCarthy said. “This has been a very challenging week due to injuries. Obviously if I knew why it was happening, I would fix it.”
So training camp has become more about survival than injecting a shot of nasty into the league’s 32nd-ranked defense.
Two-a-day practices died last year. The new collective bargaining agreement changed the course of camp. The Packers have had only 11 full-padded practices this summer, including the intrasquad scrimmage. Game planning has mostly replaced fundamental work. Ready or not, the Sept. 9 opener against the dark-alley-tough San Francisco 49ers is coming.
Defensive players do not sound too concerned about these injuries. They say the shorter, more vanilla practices won’t change their focus on tackling, on violence.
“We just need to take our time with each other within plays,” rookie defensive end Jerel Worthy said. “Don’t take kill shots when you have the opportunity. Try to keep guys up in piles. Let them finish a play, that’s what Coach McCarthy always teaches us. And if we’re tackling, just kind of form fit. Don’t try to kill him.
“Obviously, it’s a physical sport. Everybody’s out there moving 100 miles an hour so we just have to be aware of each other’s safety.”
Protocol doesn’t change too much for Worthy and the guys up front. But the linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties already in “thud” mode — wrapping up, instead of tackling players — must remain cautious. When wide receiver Tori Gurley dropped a hard shoulder into cornerback Dion Turner Monday, groans reverberated throughout Ray Nitschke Field.
“It’s really just about getting into position because we need to take care of each other,” Burnett said. “You don’t want to take out your own teammate. But you have to just put yourself in a position and show on film that you’re in position to wrap up or make the tackle. Just keep flying around to the ball. When you practice like that, you build habits. You’re trying to build good practice habits that will carry over to the game.”
Of those 18 injured players, Sam Shields (elbow) needs contact most. The third-year cornerback is hoping to return by next week. His stretch of fundamental work — slamming into a blocking sled among other individual drills — lasted only six padded practices. Once he returns, his fight for the No. 2 cornerback job picks back up.
He does believe that “thud” tackling on defense can help him improve this part of his game.
“I need to get them to trust that I can tackle,” Shields said. “I’m ready.”
The defense can’t afford any more long-term casualties. Two weeks in, it has taken two big hits. Bishop was arguably the unit’s best player last season, the one player the Packers knew would deliver haymakers. And House was looking like the case-in-point example of what cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt wants.
Lackadaisical as a rookie in practice last season, House welcomed contact in the exhibition opener.
So, as much as the Packers may want to encourage an edge in practice, safety has taken precedent. There’s no rectifying a 32nd-ranked unit if starters keep going down.
“It’s always difficult when you don’t have the numbers and bodies in practice,” defensive end C.J. Wilson said. “You can’t do some drills. You can only do so much because you only have so many bodies. But as far as our physicality, I don’t think that will change. We’re a physical team and we know what it takes to be physical and we’re going to keep playing our game.”
Then, Wilson chuckled. The team will be fresh, he added. That’s true.
Maybe Green Bay’s tackling needs a makeover. But with 19 walking wounded, McCarthy and the Packers have to think big picture.
“Just focusing in on our techniques,” said Worthy, “and understanding that we need everybody to be healthy to make a great push this season for the Super Bowl.”
©2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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