Packers Jonathan Owens taking on larger role in Darnell Savage’s absence

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 09: Jonathan Owens #34 of the Green Bay Packers looks on from the field during an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on October 9, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 09: Jonathan Owens #34 of the Green Bay Packers looks on from the field during an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on October 9, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

With Darnell Savage being placed on IR earlier in the week, the Green Bay Packers will now be relying on Jonathan Owens to take those starting safety snaps next to Rudy Ford.

Prior to suffering the calf injury in Denver, we had seen an improved version of Savage this season. Someone who was flying around the field much more aggressively, and making more plays near the line of scrimmage. Through six games, Savage ranked 17th among all safeties in PFF’s run-stop rate metric. Along with his play style, Savage played a key role with the pre-snap communication on the back end of the defense.

"“Obviously you lose any starter, but you lose an impact, really good player,” said Joe Barry on Thursday. “The role and the job that Darnell has done with Adrian (Amos) leaving here, he has really taken that leadership role in that room, in the back end. Not only his play and his style of play that I’ve enjoyed but just his leadership role that he’s embraced and taken over.“We are going to miss the player but we are going to miss that role that he’s taken on. But hopefully he will get healthy and we’ll get him back, but anytime you lose a great player, it’s hard.”"

Owens joined the Packers late in the offseason as a free agent after being a first time starter in 2022 with the Houston Texans. He was in the mix for the starting safety battle most of the summer before Ford eventually beat him out.

During last season with the Texans, Owens was one of the more reliable tackling safeties in the NFL, making 117 out of his 128 tackle attempts, according to PFF, while recording the 15th best tackling grade as well.

With Green Bay, Owens has played 79 defensive snaps with the majority of his playing time coming in the last two games with Savage exiting each of them with an injury. Before that, Owens was used primarily as the third safety in dime situations. On the field, he has made all four of his tackle opportunities this season and allowed three receptions on four targets at a modest 8.7 yards per catch.

"“He played a lot of football in Houston,” said Barry. “Jonathan came in here, and not that he embraced his role, he came in here and competed and worked his butt off and really opened all of our eyes. But the way that Jonathan Owens has prepared and studied, I tell you guys all the time, you’re one snap away from being a starter in this league.”We’ve given him some different roles in some different packages as well. He’s very knowledgeable. He’s a great pro. I’m excited for him, even though it’s in Darnell’s absence, that he will be able to go in and play some good ball for us.”"

Safety coach Ryan Downard has mentioned on several occasions that he wants his two safeties to be interchangeable, with both being able to play in the box and in the post as a coverage defender. That way, it becomes difficult for offenses to get a beat on who has what responsibility, which creates some guesswork on their end. Downard believed that he had that with Ford and Savage together, but whether that remains the case with Owens as a starter remains to be seen.

Where Owens has made the greatest impact in his somewhat limited time – one season – as a starter is as a tackler playing closer to the line of scrimmage, rather than in coverage, where he allowed nearly 16 yards per catch in 2022 and had just three pass breakups. With how often the Packers utilize light boxes in Barry’s scheme, having the safeties be active in the run game is a must, but depending on how Barry and Downard feel about Owens in coverage could take away some of the defense’s disguising ability without Savage.

Through the first four games, Owens’ primary role came on special teams, where he was a flier on the punt coverage unit and currently has the third-most special teams snaps on this Packers roster. With his role on defense increasing, that special teams role is going to decrease.

As part of a few roster moves made this week, the Packers signed cornerback Corey Ballentine from the practice squad to the active roster and plucked cornerback Robert Rochell from the Carolina practice squad—both of whom could be tasked with taking some or all of Owens’ special teams responsibilities. Safety Zayne Anderson appears to be healthy as well and could make his debut on Sunday against Minnesota to help on special teams as well.

In his first game as a starter with the Packers, Owens and the rest of the defense will face a Minnesota Vikings’ offense that is without Justin Jefferson, but is still picking up steam. Even without Jefferson, this is a passing game that still features Jordan Addison, who has big play potential, and TJ Hockenson, who ranks second in total receiving yards among all tight ends, while Kirk Cousins is coming off his best performance of the season.

"“He’s done a great job,” said Matt LaFleur on Thursday. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to. I’m excited to see him, for his opportunity to go out there and compete. He’s just a steady, calm presence on the back end and on teams. You know what you’re going to get great effort and execution from him. He’s a great communicator. Really good tackler. He’s got to go put it together on Sunday.”"