Sunday night, the Green Bay Packers defense had arguably their best performance of the season. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine relies on creating two things when it comes to coordinating a defense: pressure and turnovers. Za’Darius Smith, Rashan Gary, and Preston Smith are the players relied on to create the pressure. For creating turnovers, the Packers and Pettine are relying on their second-year former first-round pick. Safety Darnell Savage Jr. is starting to develop into a playmaker for the Packers secondary.
Darnell Savage Jr. Emerging as the Playmaker for the Green Bay Packers Secondary
The Packers have been blessed with safeties who can make plays. LeRoy Butler and Nick Collins both were playmakers for the Packers during their tenures. While Charles Woodson was listed as a cornerback, he played more of a hybrid cornerback/safety. As were Butler and Collins, Woodson was a playmaker for the Packers secondary during his time as well.
Darnell Savage Jr. has not come close to doing what those three did over a long period of time. However, as displayed Sunday night, he is starting to do things that have many believing he could possibly duplicate what those former Packers achieved. His play was a big part of the Packers 40-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Starting to Click
Despite being in just his second season, many wondered if Darnell Savage Jr. would start to play to his potential.
Although his play was not below average, he was not playing to his draft status. In the 2019 NFL draft, general manager Brian Gutekunst traded the Packers 30th overall pick as well as two fourth-round picks to move up and select Savage Jr. with the 21st overall pick. Gutekunst was impressed with Savage Jr.’s high-end speed as well as his eight career interceptions while at the University of Maryland.
Darnell Savage Jr. was a starter in his rookie season at one of the Packers safety positions. He had two interceptions but his overall play was uneven, earning him a grade of only a C to C+. That type of play continued into the start of this season. He continued not to make big plays, struggled making tackles, and was not playing to where many thought he should be. Then, against the Chicago Bears on November 29th, things started to click.
Since that game, he has put together five strong performances. During that span, he has 22 combined tackles, two of them for losses, one sack, seven passes defended, and four interceptions. All of those numbers supported why Gutekunst traded up in the first round to select Savage Jr. In the victory over the Titans alone, he had three passes defended with one interception. He also had chances to intercept two other passes as well.
His play the past five games has many believing he can be the type of player that Butler, Collins, and Woodson once were for the Packers. But he is not doing it alone, he is getting help from a veteran position coach and a veteran player.
A New Voice
Prior to the season, the coaching staff for the Packers secondary underwent some changes. Former defensive backs coach Jason Simmons departed for the Carolina Panthers and was replaced by longtime NFL assistant Jerry Gray.
Nothing against the work Simmons did for the Packers, but the hiring of Gray had quite a few people excited. Not only has Gray made a name for himself as an assistant, but he also is a former standout cornerback for the Los Angeles Rams, being named to the Pro Bowl four times during his time. As a coach he has a long resume as a defensive backs coach and a defensive coordinator.
That experience as a player and as an assistant seems to have helped the Packers young secondary, especially with the play of Darnell Savage Jr. Prior to joining the Packers, Gray was with the Minnesota Vikings from 2014-2019. There, he helped develop safety Harrison Smith into one of the best safeties in the NFL. His ability to help develop safeties seems to have helped with Savage Jr.’s maturation.
Head coach Matt LaFleur was banking on Gray helping with his young secondary when he hired him. Savage Jr. seems to be one of the biggest beneficiaries from the Gray hire.
Batman and Robin
As recently written, fellow safety Adrian Amos is having another solid season for the Packers. The veteran safety brings not only veteran leadership, but he is also bringing sound play for the Packers secondary.
One player who seems to be benefiting the most from Amos play is Savage Jr., who is freed up to make plays now that Amos is doing the dirty work. Amos lines up all over the field. With fellow safety Raven Greene out with a shoulder injury, Amos has been utilized at times as a nickel linebacker. With Amos able to do that, it allows Savage Jr. to roam the back of the defense as a center fielder. That is a big reason he has been able to notch four interceptions this season.
With Amos playing Robin to Savage Jr.’s Batman, it has given the Packers defense a very productive safety duo. With Amos, and the addition of Gray as the defensive backs coach, Savage Jr. is illustrating why the Packers were so high on him in the 2019 NFL draft. At 23 years of age, and speed to burn, the Packers might have finally found a safety that can do what Nick Collins did before an injury cut his career short.