The Green Bay Packers’ 3-3 start is closely related to the fact that several of their best players are performing below expectation — Aaron Rodgers, A.J. Dillon, Elgton Jenkins, De’Vondre Campbell, Rasul Douglas, Eric Stokes, and Darnell Savage. However, one player has been a pleasant surprise: safety Rudy Ford.
Ford, 27, is in his sixth NFL season. He spent time with the Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, and Jacksonville Jaguars. Released by Jacksonville on Aug. 29, he signed with the Packers two days later strictly to be a special teamer. He had played more than 10% of his team’s defensive snaps just once in his career, and it was last season for Jacksonville. Meanwhile, Ford has always played at least 45% of his team’s special teams snaps.
And Ford has been a good special teamer for the Packers, playing 41% of the special teams snaps.
“Rudy’s a very accomplished special teams player in this league,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said when the signing was announced. “He’s one of the better gunners in the league. He’s got the kind of speed and physicality that we certainly covet. We were looking at that situation for a while. Little surprised that he got shaken loose, but when he did, we were ready to get on that.”
But he is becoming more than that.
When Adrian Amos left the New England Patriots game with a concussion, Ford played 76% of the defensive snaps and performed well as a downfield tackler. Against the New York Jets, Ford played four more defensive snaps and showed the Packers’ coaching staff he can be a good third-safety option, giving the team much-needed schematic flexibility.
After playing around 25% of three-safety looks last season, the Packers hadn’t played any in the first five weeks this year, betting they could play more with two off-ball linebackers by putting rookie first-rounder Quay Walker on the field alongside De’Vondre Campbell. However, Walker has gone through growing pains and hasn’t made the impact the Packers were looking for. So the three-safety looks appear to be back, and Ford’s performance against the Patriots left the coaches confident he could be the best option for that role.
“I think he did an outstanding job,” said head coach Matt LaFleur about Ford after the Patriots game. “Playing with great effort first and foremost, but just doing his responsibility. Certainly, you felt his presence out there in terms of his physicality. I want to say he had seven tackles. I thought he did a really good job.”
Considering that his snap count is limited, Ford has played solid football for the Packers. He has the team’s third-highest PFF grade through six weeks, just behind Rashan Gary and Randall Cobb. On the other hand, fellow safety Darnell Savage is the team’s lowest-graded player (41.0).
Highest-graded Packers players according to PFF
1. Rashan Gary 82.4
2. Randall Cobb 79.9
3. Rudy Ford 78.5
4. Kenny Clark 78.5
5. Aaron Jones 77.9
Ford’s growth allows the Packers to make multiple defensive changes and adaptations.
The most obvious one is the aforementioned use of three-safety looks. Against the Jets, the Packers put Ford on the field alongside Savage as the deep-safety duo, with Adrian Amos playing in the box as a de facto linebacker. Green Bay put Quay Walker on the bench in this scenario.
Another alternative is moving Savage to the slot. The safety plays much better when he is nearer the line of scrimmage, and his poor performance is correlated to his position as a deep safety. If the Packers found another deep safety to play with Amos on two-high looks, it will eventually allow Joe Barry to move Savage to the nickel corner role.
That option also makes it possible for the Packers to take Rasul Douglas away from the slot, where he hasn’t performed as well. In this case, Douglas could move to the boundary and split snaps with Eric Stokes, depending on if the defense plays man or zone.