GREEN BAY, Wis. -- At the end of every week of practice, Joe Whitt transforms from football coach to proctor.
The 35-year-old Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach puts his players through a final exam.
“I actually call it a pre-test because the real test is the game,” Whitt said.
Most weeks, it’s a three-page written test with No. 2 pencils provided, and it usually looks something like this:
Page 1 – Tendencies of the upcoming opponent; 8-10 questions.
Page 2 – Matching opponent formations to defensive play calls; 20 questions.
Page 3 – Coverage combinations, 8-10 questions.
“It’s not easy,” third-year cornerback Davon House said.
This week, however, with the arch-rival Chicago Bears coming to town for "Monday Night Football," the cornerbacks asked Whitt if they could do something different.
“They wanted to do more group study than individual study,” Whitt said Saturday. “When we took our test today, we did it as a group, and they asked to do it as a group. They thought that it helped us [taking it] together instead of individually, instead of me just grading it. I thought that was the right approach from the individuals in the room. Hopefully, we go out and play well.”
With perhaps the deepest pool of talent in his room since he took over as cornerbacks coach in 2009, Whitt’s test might help decide who plays and who doesn’t. The return of Casey Hayward last week from a preseason hamstring injury gave the Packers five legitimate options at cornerback – House, Hayward and rookie Micah Hyde all could see playing time in the nickel and dime packages alongside starters Sam Shields and Tramon Williams.
There’s no minimum score required, but …
“I take it that Joe probably takes note of who knows what they’re doing and whatnot,” House said.
Whitt’s task this week is to pick the right combinations against the Bears’ duo of big, physical athletic receivers – the 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall and the 6-3 Alshon Jeffery. Shields and Williams have been mainstays in the starting lineup, but the lineups in the sub packages have been fluid. Williams has been moving into the slot in nickel, with Shields and House playing outside. Last week against the Minnesota Vikings, Whitt alternated Hyde and Hayward as the dime defensive back.
Every player approaches Whitt’s test differently. House tries to go as fast as he can, “because,” he said, “in the game it’s going to come like this.” And House snapped his fingers.
Therefore, he said he typically completes the exam in 7-10 minutes.
“If I know what the safeties are doing and what the linebackers are doing, I fill it in right away,” House said. “But if I don’t, I just do what I do because I know what I have to do. But most of the time it’s filling everything in, but some calls they put us in tough situations where all I know is what I have to do, so I focus on that.”
Williams, the eldest and most experienced among the group, tends to take his time.
“Tramon doesn’t ever miss anything,” House said.
For a rookie like Hyde, the tests have proven invaluable.
“I think he does a good job of keeping us on our toes and gets us thinking, ‘What do they like to do in this formation, that formation? With their motion? This and that,’” Hyde said. “It’s very helpful.”
The Packers’ pass defense has improved steadily since it allowed San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to throw for 412 yards – including 208 yards on 13 catches by receiver Anquan Boldin – in the season opener. Since then, the Packers have allowed just 221.5 passing yards per game, 12th best in the league since Week 2.
The tests help Whitt, too. He knows if players all miss certain questions, then he has not properly taught that concept during the week and can correct it before kickoff. Or, if only one player misses a question, he can work specifically with him on that issue.
“The tests do mater,” Whitt said. “If they don’t do well on that test, and it’s close between two guys [for playing time], the guy that does better will be the one that plays.”