Sometime over the next two weeks, the Green Bay Packers are going to be welcoming back both cornerback Sam Shields and safety Charles Woodson to their defensive secondary.
Shields said Wednesday that he is at 100 percent, and he could realistically play Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Woodson is on track to return next week against the Chicago Bears, at the very latest. Green Bay hasn't played a game with both players healthy since the start of a Week 6 win over the Houston Texans.
Both returned to practice Wednesday.
In a season fraught with injuries on both sides of the ball, any sort of positive news on that front is obviously welcomed.
But the return of Shields, who suffered a high ankle sprain against the Texans on Oct. 14, and Woodson, who broke his collarbone against the St. Louis Rams a week later, raises interesting questions about how the Packers will deploy their secondary with a full complement of players.
In Shields' absence, second-year cornerback Davon House has taken over a large portion of the snaps at outside cornerback opposite Tramon Williams. Save for a handful of plays against the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants, House has played very well in Shields' old spot. He's physical and has ideal size (6-0, 200 lbs.) for playing outside.
With Woodson out of the lineup, rookie Casey Hayward has become one of the game's true stoppers in the slot. In fact, Pro Football Focus grades out Hayward as the top cornerback inside (53.8 passer rating allowed in the slot) and the second-best overall (+20.1 grade).
Now, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to decide how to split up the snaps and looks with both Shields and Woodson getting back into the fold.
Before going down in Houston, Shields played almost exclusively on the outside opposite Williams. He started five games and averaged nearly 70 snaps a contest after Capers mistakenly gave Jarrett Bush a start in Week 1. Overall, Shields played on over 98 percent of the defense's snaps from Week 2 until his injury in the second half in Houston.
Woodson, a starting free safety in the base defense, typically dropped into the slot when the Packers went to nickel and dime subpackages. According to PFF, 61 of Woodson's 486 snaps have come from the slot this season.
If Capers decided to keep bringing Woodson into the slot in his nickel package, Hayward would likely see a drastic drop off in snaps. With Woodson healthy the first six weeks, Hayward averaged just 28 snaps a game. He's averaged almost 59 since.
Given how productive and instinctive Hayward has been—regardless of where Capers has lined him up in the defense—there's really no way he can afford to slash the rookie's snaps by 31 a game with Woodson healthy. He needs to play, somewhere.
The same could probably be said for House.
After not playing in the first six weeks, House has averaged 48 snaps a game since Shields went down. He's allowed just 19 catches on 41 targets, thanks mostly to an ability to re-route receivers at the line of scrimmage with his big frame.
Shields isn't as physical as House, but his speed—especially on the outside—remains a big asset for the Packers defense.
More than likely, Woodson's return will also signal a decrease in snaps for M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. The two young safeties have been splitting snaps next to Morgan Burnett, and each has had a handful of encouraging moments. Jennings' pick-six of Matthew Stafford two weeks ago was a potentially season-altering play.
Now, special teams might have to become a bigger focus for both Jennings and McMillian.
Everywhere you look, it's a tricky situation.
Still, Capers' problem is a good one, and it sure beats the socks off the alternative. Given how much he's had to mix and match players at every level of his defense, having too many players worthy of snaps in the secondary now should be a breath of fresh air.
But that reality still doesn't take away from the decisions he likely has to make in the coming weeks. Without question, deserving players at cornerback and safety are going to lose snaps. Capers' job now is to make sure he figures out the right mix with a healthy group of talented players in his secondary.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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