Marquee corners, underrated safeties power Packers' pass defense

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It starts with Al Harris and Charles Woodson, a pair of veteran cornerbacks so good at anticipating a receiver's next move that even their coaches and teammates sometimes are left shaking their heads.

Behind them is strong safety Atari Bigby, a heavy hitter who has made major strides in his pass defense in his first season as a starter -- so much so that he was named the NFC defensive player of the month for his four interceptions in December.

Free safety Nick Collins sometimes gets overlooked. But not by his coaches, who appreciate his communication skills and sometimes have a hard time finding his mistakes when they're grading game film.

It all adds up to a formidable secondary that could help propel the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl, but must first pass a test from Seattle's pass-first offense in a divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field on Saturday.

"They have a veteran quarterback and veteran receivers," Bigby said. "Not as fast, but they're quick and they know how to get open -- something like the guys down there in St. Louis. Guys know how to get open, they run great routes. So we're going to have a challenge back there."

That challenge might have gotten tougher as of Wednesday. Seahawks wide receiver Deion Branch practiced for the first time since hurting his calf two weeks ago.

"This is a good defense, and they're playing with a lot of confidence and they're playing well," Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "So the more guys that can play, the better."

The main goal of the Packers' secondary is throwing off the timing between an opposing quarterback and his receivers.

"Our objective as a secondary is to jam, disrupt receivers -- get them off the pattern that they want to be on, kind of make it where the quarterback doesn't know where they're going to be," Packers secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said.

Their pass defense isn't perfect by any means. The Packers still haven't really settled on a No. 3 cornerback and sometimes lose track of tight ends.

But oh, that starting cornerback tandem.

Backup quarterback Aaron Rodgers faces Harris and Woodson in practice, and can't imagine there's a better pair in the league.

"It seems like they cheat sometimes because they're so instinctual," Rodgers said. "They can read a guy's (body) language when he's breaking down -- when he's stopping, when he's going, when he's breaking out, when he's breaking in. These guys are incredible."

And very different. Harris plays aggressive bump-and-run coverage, locking down the other team's best receiver at the line of scrimmage.

"Al is clearly, clearly in your face all the time and jamming, disrupting and so forth and feels the top of routes extremely well," Schottenheimer said. "If they run a comeback, he feels it well. If they run an out and up, a couple of weeks ago, he played it. I mean, how did you know it was an out and up, know what I mean? Again, he just felt it."

The biggest play of Harris' career came against the Seahawks in a playoff game four years ago, when he intercepted a pass from Hasselbeck and ran it back for a touchdown in overtime after the quarterback, now notoriously, declared that the Seahawks "want the ball, and we're going to score" after the coin flip.

Harris downplayed it this week, calling it a "lucky play." But Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said it's just an example of how dangerous Harris can be.

"He's an outstanding player," Holmgren said. "You don't fool him too often."

Woodson, in contrast, is a little more devious than Harris. He sometimes plays off his man in hopes of tricking a quarterback to throw his way.

Woodson nabbed a pass from Rodgers in practice the other day, after the quarterback was sure that Woodson had lost track of his receiver. Afterward, Rodgers asked Woodson how he made the play.

"He said, 'I saw the route combination coming, and I knew the guy was going to stop, and I just hoped that you would come back to him,"' Rodgers said. "And sure enough, I did. I thought I knew where Charles was and I came back to him, threw it right to him. He does his own thing sometimes, and 95 percent of the time, it's the right thing to do."

So if those corners are so good, will the Seahawks pick on the Packers' safeties?

"I hope so," Schottenheimer said. "I hope they try to do that, because we like the way these guys play. I don't know who in the heck would evaluate that these guys are a weak link."

Bigby took over the starting job in training camp, unseating last year's starter, Marquand Manuel. He's a big hitter with good range, and has greatly improved his ability to read plays and end up in the right place at the right time.

"When it's run, he's coming 100 miles an hour forward," Schottenheimer said. "When it's pass, he's playing pass. He's got a chance to be a special player."

Collins, meanwhile, always seems to be in the right place.

"Hell, there's times it's difficult to find a play that you want to give him a minus on," Schottenheimer said. "Very, very consistent."

After a good season, Bigby said the secondary is ready for the stakes to increase.

"We feel pretty confident, as we've felt throughout the whole season," Bigby said. "But it's the playoffs, and it's the best team on that day."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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