By: Matt Bove
Two years ago an injury to Charles Woodson would have been devastating to the Packers Super Bowl chances. Now, with Woodson projected to be out for about four to six weeks, the Packers should be able to get by without him.
It would seem irrational to say this, since Woodson should be a future Hall of Fame player, and he has been an incredible player for the Packers since they signed him as a free agent in 2006. However, Woodson has just not been the same player this season.
Woodson is known as one of the toughest players in the NFL, so the Packers are hoping he can be back sooner rather than later. Aaron Rodgers, speaking on his weekly radio show with Jason Wilde on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com, expects that to be the case.
"I was just hoping it wasn't what they told us, I would still bet on the low end of the range," Rodgers said. "If they're saying four to eight weeks, I would bet closer to four with Charles. It's tough. He and I are obviously close, and I've always appreciated his support, his leadership and friendship. Not to mention the way he plays on the field, he's an incredible player. But this gives guys like (Jerron) McMillian, M.D. Jennings an opportunity - a Casey Heyward and (Davon) House as well - to get some playing time now and expectations are going to be high."
Woodson's Packers career has been on one of the most decorated careers in the Packers history to this point. He has 38 career interceptions for the Packers and 55 for his entire career. He has 11 career interceptions returns for touchdowns, which is second all-time behind Rod Woodson. Also, his eight defensive touchdowns for the Packers are a team record. Woodson won NFL Defensive MVP in 2009 with with 74 tackles, two sacks, nine interceptions and three touchdowns.
Dom Capers' defense used to be build around Woodson and his playmaking ability. His ability to read quarterbacks, create turnovers, to be put anywhere in the defense and to blitz off the edge was paramount for the Packers defense. This season, Woodson has been almost invisible compared to what he used to be.
Woodson only has one interception this season in seven games. He has lost a step in coverage, so he has resorted to using his hands more, and he has four defensive penalties this season. Also, when Woodson has been sent on blitzes this season, he has been mostly getting blocked.
It is probably a stretch to say that Woodson will not be missed at all, but it is a possibility. They will miss his physicality in run defense and in defending the screen game. What they will miss most is his veteran presence and leadership. It was Woodson who gave the major motivational speeches before the NFC Championship game and at halftime during the Super Bowl, after he broke his collarbone during the second quarter. Woodson should still be able to lead in the meeting rooms and from the sidelines.
The Packers are much deeper in the secondary this season than they have been in recent years. Rookie Casey Heyward has been one of the best rookies in the NFL this season. Head coach Mike McCarthy raved about Heyward this week to reporters.
" I just think he's a heck of a football player," McCarthy said. "For a rookie to come in here and play as many positions and to pick it up the way he has, he just needs to play, so I'm very happy with the progress he's making."
Heyward is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (four) and is second on the team in pass breakups (eight) despite playing only playing in the dime for mot of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, Heyward also leads the NFL in quarterback rating into his coverage (23.7).
Heyward only became a full-time player last week when Sam Shields missed the game due to a shin injury and will remain one at least as long as Woodson is out. Heyward's coverage in the slot should be a step up from Woodson. When Shields comes back from his short-term injury, him and Tramon Williams form a very good tandem on the outside. The other young defensive backs who will see an increase in playing time are Davon House, Jerron McMillian and MD Jennings.
House is the Packers biggest ( 6-feet-1 and 195 pounds) and most physical corner, and he was well on his way to beating out Shields for the starting cornerback spot before injuring his shoulder in the preseason opener. He made his season debut last week vs. St. Louis and was solid. He blanketed his man in coverage most of the time, and broke up a pass to Chris Givens on a critical fourth-and-2 quick slant early in the second quarter. House did allow a 3-yard touchdown to Austin Pettis with the game already decided, which was his only error.
McMillian, a rookie selected in the fourth-round, will split time with Jennings at safety and play Heyward's former position as slot cornerback in the dime. McMillian has had his ups and downs this season, but he has shown that he is capable of making plays and being physical.
With Woodson's declining ability and the Packers' great depth in the defensive backfield, the Packers are more adept to handle Woodson's injury than ever before. This could even turn into a good thing for Woodson, as his body should be fresh down the stretch for the Packers.
The Packers will gladly welcome Woodson back when the time comes, but for now the Packers should be able to survive without him.