‘Trust’ and playing fast important parts of potential bounce back year for Packers’ Darnell Savage
Green Bay Packers safety Darnell Savage is coming off a disappointing 2022 season in which he was even benched at one point. A bounceback is needed, and that begins with trusting what he sees, allowing his instincts and playmaking to take over.
Missed tackles and breakdowns in coverage were two things that happened far too frequently last season. Out of 68 eligible safeties, Savage would have the fourth-highest missed tackle rate in 2022. And when there was a big play given up as a result of a blown assignment, oftentimes it was Savage who was out of position.
After being relegated to only dime duties, Savage was placed in the slot late in the season, where he found success. That alignment, or playing closer to the line of scrimmage, is where many believe he is at his best. However, given the makeup of the Packers’ cornerback and safety rooms, Savage is going to have to be utilized in that traditional safety role. Regardless of where Savage is asked to line up, he’s at his best when he’s decisive and playing fast.
“I’ve seen Darnell make plays in the post,” said defensive backs coach Ryan Downard on Wednesday. “I think Darnell is best when he pulls the trigger and let’s it all hang out. I’ve had that talk with him. If you watch his Maryland tape, he was going to get it. He’s got to trust himself. We have to do a better job of tackling and playing a physical brand of football. That’s not only at the point of contact, but that’s taking on blocks.”
During Savage’s final two seasons at Maryland, he was a ball magnet, coming away with seven interceptions and 11 pass breakups during that span. But last season in coverage, he was overly aggressive, which led to him trying to force things in an effort to make a play and abandoning his assignment. That “trust” that Downard speaks of is something that several of the Packers’ positional coaches referred to during interviews this past week. When a player trusts what they see, they’re thinking less, letting their instincts take over more, and that’s when big plays happen.
Tackling has never been a strength of Savage’s game. The lowest missed tackle rate that he has logged in a season still would have been among the top 10 in 2022, but it is an important part of playing safety in Joe Barry’s defense. With a heavy usage of light boxes, safeties do have to be active in the run game, filling gaps and taking on blockers.
This ability was a clear emphasis for the Packers this offseason in how they went about addressing the safety position. Jonathan Owens, Rudy Ford, Anthony Johnson, and Tarvarius Moore all have track records of being willing and capable tacklers. To complement Savage, consistency with tackling and run defense may be the deciding factor in who is starting next to Savage come Week 1.
“Prototype-wise, I’d like to have a two-way safety,” said Downard. “What I mean by that is a guy that can cover and a guy that can tackle. If you can thump, if you bring power on contact, that’s a bonus, but I got to be able to get guys on the ground. So tackling is a premium. Obviously, coverage and taking the ball away is a premium. If we have two of those guys who can do both, we can play them left and right. If we have a guy whose skill set is more anchored towards tackling or physicality to his game, then we might place him on the boundary and the other guy in the field. So we have to see who is going be that guy.”
Savage is playing the 2023 season on his rookie fifth-year option, which was picked up during the 2022 offseason. The deal originally came with $7.9 million guaranteed, but following a contract restructure that utilized void years, the Packers were able to save $5.46 million in cap space this season by doing what they’ve done often the last few years, pushing cap charges into the future. It’s worth noting, however, that with how they restructured the deal by strategically placing roster bonuses into the void years, they do have the opportunity to extend him prior to free agency in March of 2024, something that wouldn’t have been possible under a normal contract restructure with void years.
As we saw last year, just because Savage begins at safety doesn’t mean that is where he is going to finish the season, depending on what takes place. Although questions still surround the position, with Owens, Ford, Moore, and Johnson, Green Bay isn’t lacking options at the position. Also, once Eric Stokes returns from injury, a crowded cornerback room could give the Packers the flexibility to have Rasul Douglas take some safety snaps, something GM Brian Gutekunst discussed before this year’s draft.
Savage has another opportunity before him. Seizing it could result in an extension while failing to do so will end with him in a new uniform next season. But it all begins with trusting what he’s seeing, what he’s doing, and letting his playmaking nature take over.
“I do think he has some ability to patrol the middle, but when he’s in the post, he can go red line to red line, probably more,” added Downard. “I think he can do both. I do think he brings that skill set, we saw that last year. I think he got into a little bit of a groove. So he can do that for us, but we have to figure how these puzzle pieces fit together.”