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Secondary is primary issue

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy had the conversation a couple times Tuesday. He had it with his defensive assistants, he had it with the players. He even had it on the practice field with general manager Ted Thompson.

“I’ll tell you this right now: I just talked about it this morning, two different times, (then) talked to Ted on the field – the corner, safety position (have) not been set yet,” the Green Bay Packers head coach said emphatically after practice. “These guys need to play. They need to play Thursday night – and hopefully all play well.”

So as wonderful as competition is – and to a man, every coach at every position on the Packers’ staff will swear up and down that it brings out the best in his guys – at some point, decisions need to be made. Starters must be chosen, winners declared, cuts made.

But as they prep for their third game of the preseason Thursday night at Cincinnati, the Packers aren’t any closer to deciding what to do in their secondary – at right cornerback, with the starting job vacated by Charles Woodson’s move to safety in the base defense; and at safety in their nickel and dime packages, when Woodson moves to the slot.

“I don’t think it’s anything to panic about. I don’t think we should be pressed into a time table,” safeties coach Darren Perry said after practice. “Obviously, the guys who are going to be out there on Sundays, you want those guys to work together as much as possible, but I don’t think there’s a sense of panic and sense of pressure to have it done by this particular date because you want to make the best decision.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy decision. These guys are right there. They are very, very close. And they’re all deserving. It’s going to come down to whoever is going to be the most productive and give us the best chance to have the best group.”

The Packers’ options at cornerback are veteran Jarrett Bush, who opened camp with the No. 1 defense opposite Tramon Williams but has been up and down the depth chart since; Sam Shields, who was the No. 3 cornerback his first two seasons but entered camp behind Bush and suffered an elbow injury that further hurt his chances; second-year man Davon House, who had taken the lead in the competition before suffering a dislocated shoulder at San Diego in the Aug. 9 preseason opener and hasn’t practiced or played since; and rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward, who has had good days and bad days but is clearly in the mix. Brandian Ross, who was on the practice squad last year, is also in the picture.

Bush has worked with the No. 1 defense each of the past two days in practice after Hayward had gotten that work last week. Now back from his elbow injury, Shields had a strong practice Tuesday but still has catching up to do.

There’s also the issue of who fills the fourth cornerback spot along with Williams and Woodson in the dime defense, a package it appears defensive coordinator Dom Capers intends to use more frequently this season.

Bush, Shields, Hayward and Ross all could see time with the starters on Thursday night against the Bengals, and they should also see extended work in the Aug. 30 preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs, since Woodson traditionally doesn’t play in that game and the coaches could opt to rest Williams, too. House is still at least another week or two away from knowing if he can play wearing a harness or if the rest hasn’t healed the injury and he needs surgery.

“This is a big game for everybody. I’m excited to go watch them represent themselves and put their case (forward) for why they deserve to be that guy – or those guys, in different packages,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “But as of right now, I couldn’t tell you who’s over who. The process is not complete yet. We’ll know that at the end of the Kansas City game.”

Whitt said he charts every play in practice and makes sure the snaps are divvied up fairly. He also said he’s not bothered by the fact that no one has seized control of the spot.

“I think what’s happened is, everybody has stepped up their game, and with everybody stepping up their game, it has really made it (tough). Nobody has separated themselves, but I believe everybody is playing at a level that they’re deserving,” Whitt said. “But there hasn’t been a separation yet, and they have two more opportunities under the lights to separate themselves.”

At safety, Woodson is the clear-cut starter alongside Morgan Burnett when the Packers play their base defense. But when Woodson moves to the slot, the Packers’ top three candidates at safety are M.D. Jennings, who made the team last year as an undrafted rookie free agent and was primarily working with the No. 1 defense all camp until this week; rookie fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, who flashed in last Thursday’s 35-10 loss to Cleveland and received first-team reps in practice on Sunday; and Anthony Levine, who spent the entire 2010 season on the practice squad and the second half of last season there as well.

Unlike rookie safeties Nick Collins (2005) and Burnett (2010), McMillian wasn’t handed the starting job upon his arrival, and Perry said he might’ve been put at a disadvantage because he worked in Woodson’s slot spot a lot during OTAs, when Woodson wasn’t taking part. Jennings was working with the No. 1s at safety during that time and had kept that spot until this week.

“Those (other) guys have gotten better,” Perry said. “I know sometimes people look out and see M.D. starting with the 1s and so forth, but those guys knew right from Day 1 it was open competition.

“We’re just going to try to make the best decision and go with the guy we feel is going to give us the best shot to be a good defense.”

At least the safety battle has been a healthy one. Capers hinted Tuesday that House was on his way to being the guy at cornerback until his shoulder injury against the Chargers. Now, it’s anybody’s ballgame.

Asked if he was OK with that, the veteran defensive coordinator smiled.

“That’s where we are,” Capers said. “As a coach, I look at San Francisco and they have the same 11 starters, so there hasn’t been any change. Obviously if you had your druthers, that’d be the case. But that’s not the case with us.

“We’ve got a lot of these young guys, and what happens is, you go through the preseason, injuries occur, guys miss time. If we could’ve had that whole group healthy, I think we might have a much clearer picture. About the time you think it starts to define itself, something happens and guys miss time.

“We need to continue to follow the process, see how these guys do, try to get the guys who are competing as many reps as we can Thursday night so we can have as clear a picture as you can have before you play a regular-season game. Sure, there’s uncertainty there right now. I’d feel better if everything was locked down, but in my experience, by the time we play, it’ll define itself."

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.