In what looks to be the one true battle remaining in training camp, the Green Bay Packers seem undecided on who to start at safety opposite Nick Collins.
Atari Bigby, who is coming off major offseason ankle surgery, was projected to be that guy. However, free agent signee Anthony Smith has outplayed Bigby in almost every opportunity he’s been given. And although Bigby hasn’t performed badly, he hasn’t returned to his pre-injury form.
Since the Packers have determined their starters on the offensive line, and have said that they will use both Donald Lee and Jermichael Finley extensively at tight end, strong safety remains the biggest question mark for the Packers.
Bigby has registered only 2 tackles during the preseason. Smith, meanwhile, has registered 8 tackles and shown a knack for making plays, with 1 sack, 2 interceptions, and 5 passes defended. Smith returned an interception in the Arizona game late in the second quarter that set up the No. 1 offense’s final touchdown.
The Green Bay Press Gazette’s Tom Pelissaro suggests that even though Smith has looked like the better player, the Packers seem willing to give Bigby the benefit of the doubt.
It’s been more than eight months since he had significant ankle surgery, which sidelined him for all offseason practices and landed him on a one-a-day practice schedule in training camp. Although he looks fantastic physically, Bigby hasn’t shown his usual explosion, and his technique and footwork remain works in progress after the long layoff.
The Packers are optimistic Bigby will come around, even if his numbers — two solo tackles in roughly six preseason quarters — suggest he has a ways to go.
In addition to making plays, Smith has come out with the mentality of a starter from day one. He is intimately familiar with the 3-4 defense, having played with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the drawback to Smith is he is prone to getting beat on big plays because of a tendency to go for fakes. Although, he’s shown improvement, this is the guy who guaranteed a victory over the Patriots two seasons ago and subsequently went out and got torched by Tom Brady.
For those reasons, the Packers may choose to go with an unspectacular Bigby over a feast or famine guy like Smith.
Speaking of famine, let’s talk about A.J. Hawk.
The Packers have reduced Hawk’s role in the defense (finally!). Hawk has been removed from the nickel defense in favor of Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar, both of whom are far superior in coverage to Hawk.
What that means for all practical purposes is that Hawk’s playing time will be cut in half and the Packers will likely give up fewer completions over the middle.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Hawk is a bust. He may work hard, he may play hard, he may be a great guy, but he hasn’t performed to the level of a fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft. Additionally, he’s been clearly outperformed by Desmond Bishop and Chillar this preseason.
I can’t see the Packers giving up on Hawk yet, but this is a move in that direction. The coaches owe it to the team and the fans to put their best players on the field, and it’s become readily apparent this preseason that if they leave Bishop and Chillar on the bench in favor of Hawk, they’re not doing that.