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How the Green Bay Packers secondary turned its season around: 'We ain't keeping secrets'

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GREEN BAY – The texts wouldn’t stop pinging last week. Rasul Douglas, who doubles as Jaire Alexander’s unofficial sports psychologist, was the biggest instigator.

Alexander was finally getting his chance to cover Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson. It was an opportunity he’d wanted for four months. He probably didn’t need any more motivation, but Douglas was ruthless. Eventually, the rest of his teammates in the Green Bay Packers secondary chipped in.

As kickoff approached, the trash talk intensified in a recently revitalized group text thread. Jefferson was going to drop bombs on Alexander, teammates told him. He wasn’t ready for one of the NFL’s best receivers. They wanted Alexander angry. Snarling. Ready for a fight.

“We basically just piss each other off,” cornerback Keisean Nixon said. “You’ve got to make them mad. Piss them off. Talk some trash to turn them up.”

It worked. Alexander didn’t allow a catch against Jefferson. The Packers blew out a Vikings offense playing with its best weapon locked in a box. Nixon smiled, remembering the exchanges at his locker Thursday. But to reduce the secondary’s group text thread to friendly trash talk, some not-safe-for-work banter meant to inspire, would be missing the point.

If the Packers defensive backs appear more connected on the field in the past couple of weeks, it’s because they are more connected on their cell phones and iPads. Memories are fuzzy, but before the Packers' four-game win streak began, defensive backs started sharing film clips of coverages from practices and games on a group thread. Nobody can quite remember who was first to send a clip to the rest of the group, or when the group was even created.

“You’ve got to delete it,” safety Darnell Savage said, “because you lose storage fast.”

Motivational trash talk combined with helpful information

Safety Adrian Amos suggested the thread wasn’t new, just underused. The secondary has been more “intentional” with it recently, he said. Nixon, who spent his first three NFL seasons with the Las Vegas Raiders, said the group thread is something he’d never done before. If the origin is a mystery, nobody questions the improvement made since coverage clips started cluttering their thread.

As the Packers prepared for their trip to Chicago in early December, their secondary was a disjointed mess. The defense allowed 22 pass plays of at least 25 yards in the first 12 games this season. Those 22 completions added up to 795 yards and four touchdowns. Most troubling, half of those completions were a byproduct of miscommunication on the field. Missed assignments. A safety not helping in coverage. Two defenders covering one receiver, leaving another to run free.

For a defensive backfield with three first-round picks and two other veteran starters, the ceiling was much higher. Something, clearly, had to change. After meetings, conversations started spilling into the group text thread. The Packers have allowed just four pass plays of at least 25 yards in their four games since.

“We ain’t keeping secrets,” Douglas said. “That’s the biggest thing, don’t keep a secret. If you know the play, tell somebody else. They might not know it. The game might be moving differently. Everybody has different ways of studying, everybody has different ways in a game of knowing what routes are coming. So if you know it, just say it. Help them out.”

Douglas acknowledge the Packers defensive backs spent much of this season diagnosing pass plays differently, unsure where teammates would be in coverage. Everyone has their own way of processing information, and without communication off the field, missed assignments were a constant problem.

The issues started Week 1 when the Packers allowed six pass plays of at least 20 yards in Minnesota, including a 64-yard catch for Jefferson in the first quarter when Savage appeared to pass the receiver off to fellow safety Amos. Instead, Jefferson ran behind Amos uncovered. In the second quarter, Jefferson scored a 36-yard touchdown when nobody covered him.

When the Vikings traveled to Lambeau Field on Sunday, the Packers didn’t allow a 20-yard completion until after their starting defense was pulled in the fourth quarter with a 41-3 lead. It’s been six quarters since the starting secondary allowed a 25-yard completion, its longest streak this season.

A few extra text messages go a long way.

“It’s basically, like, ‘How do you see this?’” Savage said. “Everybody responds and says how they see it, because we’ve got two different corners. They don’t see things the same. Ja might not see things the same as Rasul. So I’ve got to know if I’m on the same side with Ja, then this is how he sees it. If I’m on the same side as Rasul, this is how he sees it.

“It’s just all about being on the same page. That allows us to go out there and let our talent and athletic ability just kind of take over.”

Savage said firing up the group text thread was more about opportunity than necessity. Late in the season, there was more film to pick from. The Packers had a better understanding of which routes were giving them the biggest problems.

Communication, complementary football have led to turnover opportunities

Communication isn’t the only factor allowing the Packers pass coverage to play better. Coach Matt LaFleur said more pass rush in recent weeks has made life easier on the back end. With less time to cover, LaFleur said, defensive backs are better able to hide mistakes. There also haven’t been nearly as many coverage busts in recent weeks.

For that, defensive coordinator Joe Barry said he encourages his defensive backs to talk more, ensuring everyone is likeminded when diagnosing a play.

“Communication on the back end – that group especially – they have to be on it,” Barry said. “It’s very similar to an offensive line on the offensive side of the ball. Not to say any other position group, communication and talking to each other isn’t important, but in the back end and secondary, it’s vital.”

With fewer explosive plays allowed, the secondary has been more opportunistic than at any point this season. The Packers have six interceptions in their past six quarters, five from defensive backs. They had 11 in their first 14½ games this season.

More:The Packers have finally found an offensive identity, but is it enough to beat the Lions?

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The question is whether that can continue Sunday when the Packers host the Detroit Lions and quarterback Jared Goff, who has not thrown an interception in his past eight games. Whether the Packers force turnovers this week or not, their first job will be preventing Goff from finding open receivers down the field. Now that they’re digitally connected, those explosive plays should be easier to avoid.

The trash talk isn't going anywhere. This week, Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown is sure to be a topic of conversation. Behind the barbs, there's a bigger point. With a few buttons, Packers defensive backs are holding each other accountable.

"Sometimes when things are not going right," Amos said, "you want to keep finding more ways to strengthen what you're doing. So it's just being on it a little bit more as far as communication within the group, and taking ownership, like, 'All right, I know this is what coaches see and want us to do, but how do you see it?' I feel like when you do that, you build trust."

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