If the early reports are correct, Charles Woodson should return from his collarbone injury for this week’s division deciding showdown against the Chicago Bears. He’s one of a few names who are expected back, as Clay Matthews and C.J. Wilson are also expected to end their stints on the injury list. However, one question distinguishes Woodson’s return from the rest.
However, one question distinguishes Woodson’s return from the rest.
How will he be reintegrated into the Packers’ defense?
If the defense had struggled mightily in the areas Woodson covered, this wouldn’t be an issue. Yet the play at safety and slot corner has been great, if not greater, in Woodson’s absence.
At safety, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian have both shown incredible ability to keep a lid on opponent’s passing games. McMillian especially has proven difficult to throw at, and veteran passers consistently look away from wherever he is stationed. Morgan Burnett has improved his play as well by rediscovering the ball-hawking ability he displayed during the first half of 2011. More impressive still, Burnett has developed pass rushing ability on safety blitzes, netting two sacks and even more quarterback pressures since Woodson’s injury. Even if Woodson takes the absolute minimum amount of time to shake the rust, it’s hard to imagine he’ll outperform this combined production.
The bigger story, though, is the ascension of Casey Hayward. Hayward went from showing mere competence as a slot corner to becoming one of the best in the entire league. Hayward plays highly instinctually, making the right reads and sticking on the hip of opposing receivers despite only having average speed for a cornerback. The slot corner spot has been Woodson’s since almost the beginning of his Green Bay tenure. It’s the position Woodson has done most of his damage: blitzing the QB, pushing around tight ends, and until recently, giving up little to slot receivers. Woodson may no longer be able to cover in the slot the way Hayward does, and it would be unconscionable to remove Hayward at this point.
So what can the Packers do to both satiate their longtime defensive leader and not see drop-offs in production? The answer may seem a little out of bounds, but when you consider the skills Woodson still possesses and where the Green Bay defense has struggled, it doesn’t seem so crazy.
Play Woodson at linebacker.
More specifically, play Woodson at linebacker in the nickel. This maximizes the skills he has while keeping the young, high-producing defensive backs on the field. Perhaps Woodson shifts to safety in the base 3-4, but it’s in the nickel where he should play primarily as a linebacker.
This wouldn’t be the first time Woodson’s played in such a role. While it wasn’t labeled as such in 2009 and 2010, Woodson played a hybrid slot corner/outside linebacker position to great effect. From this spot, Woodson would flush the quarterback out of the pocket, cover the tight end or slot receiver, and also be able to drop back with the linebackers into zone. Today, Woodson can still tackle like a linebacker, cover tight ends, and play at least as well as any of Green Bay’s current linebackers in zone. The last of these would help reduce the number of cheap 8-12 yard completions over the middle that have plagued the Packers this season.
As the Packers still play most of their defense out of the nickel – this past week the entire opening drive against the Lions was played in nickel – this would allow Woodson to get on the field without making major sacrifices. Woodson could take the linebacker spot opposite of Clay Matthews and give the pass rush the most balance it’s had since Nick Perry went down. Woodson could also shift to Brad Jones’ inside linebacker spot if coverage over the middle of the field becomes an issue.
While many fans might be pealing their jaws off the ground after reading this, such was the same reaction when the idea of playing Woodson primarily at safety was first floated. As with the other aging Packer veterans, the team must adapt to Woodson’s diminished skill set. Fortunately for the Packers, the skills he still has are incredibly unique and fit their defensive needs perfectly. Don’t be surprised to see Woodson playing a role like this as the regular season closes out.