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Healthy Packers Secondary Raises Questions About Playing Time

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Healthy Packers Secondary Raises Questions About Playing Time

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 zachkruse2@gmail.com.

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Fan friendly comments only: on Comments (36) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Bugeater's picture

Maybe we can move Woodson to O-line...

Only partially kidding!

Evan's picture

I was thinking running back.

Denver's picture

I was thinking Shields to OLB and Woodson to DE.

Jamie's picture

I know you're joking, but I think playing Woodson in a "linebacking" role is pretty interesting. Obviously it wouldn't be a traditional lB role, but at the beginning of the year we were dropping our LBs into coverage quite often, including Clay Matthews, so by allowing Woodson to roam and cover the underneath routes it frees up Clay to rush every down.

Also I think this presents interesting blitz opportunities with people like Woodson and McMillian

trvs's picture

I play a similar line up in madden. the 2-3-6, i think. I have raji and pickett up front. Clay and Perry on the outside. Bishop and Hayward playing middle. Tramon, House, and Shields as CB's and Burnett and Woodson over the top. Not the most effective run line-up, but for passing situations its money. They should substitute the IR players and make it happen. Oh, madden.

redlights's picture

First, the fact that Bush is barely mentioned, is a plus-and-a-half.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Woodson share snaps so they can compare notes and learn from the different alignments from the "master". Probably take him out in dime for Shields. Shields will now have to toe the line; my impression is that he relied on his speed, but was poor in technique. If Shields doesn't improve his technique, Dom has justification to bench him. That will also reduce his value, as I think he's in his contract year.

Just in case Cow42 is listening, I'm sure that our D-secondary will make mistakes; but we're way ahead of our situation from last year.

Evan's picture

Remember when Bush actually started week 1? Wow.

Bugeater's picture

I'm pretty sure Cow is holed up in his Grinch cave scheming a way to steal Christmas from all the Who's in CheesheadTVille...

Evan's picture

It's not that he hates the Who's, he's just so disappointed in them.

cow42's picture

this is easy.
bench williams

woodson/burnett safeties in all alignments

base = house/outside, hayward/outside
nickel = house/outside, hayward/inside, shields/outside
dime = house/outside, williams/outside, shields or mcmillian/inside, hayward/inside

there.

bryce's picture

is this a parody account? do you really believe what you're saying?

cow42's picture

williams is overrated.

schmal's picture

You can't argue with the number of picks he's pulled down in the last year and a half.

Turophile's picture

Ask this question. would you rather see our two starting CBs be Hayward and House, or T.Williams and Shields ? Hmmm

With T.Williams having faltered recently, I'd go with the Hayward, House, combo. Shields could be the nickel corner. So where does that leave Williams, who was only very recently considered our best corner ?

You can put the problem off for a little while by letting House rest his shoulder (in favour of TW starting). Sooner or later though, you have to make a decision on your starters and a $7m+ contract may doom T.W. in favour of a younger, cheaper player.

While T.W should not be finished yet, at age 29 years old. Woodson, at 36, is probably in his last season and commands a huge salary that the Packers almost certainly want to re-allocate elsewhere (B.J.Raji, G.Jennings, A.Rodgers, C.Matthews).

I guess the safety position opposite Morgan Burnett will be filled by M.D.Jennings or Jerron McMillian. Currently I prefer the extra physicality of McMillian and he may end up a little more instinctive, but either could win the job. Both Safeties must expect to be under a microscope all season, as the Packers try to decide who is the better of the two.

Evan's picture

Those are the only two options? I'd rather see Williams and House.

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

Ditto.

MArkinMadison's picture

+2 I think House is struggling more than Williams right now. Despite age and salary I don't see Williams being cut loose next year either becuause D-backs are so important in this pass happy league. It will be interesting to see what the backfield looks like next year. My money is on Williams and Hayward starting at corner, with Shields on the slot and House spelling everyone liberally or dime. With Woodson likely retiring I think it will be Burnett and McMillian at safety.

Nerd's Laptop's picture

Williams' shoulder is still healing. Nerves regrow slowly. He'll be back to 100% next year though.

As for Woody, he will still want to play next year. That will be an interesting, perhaps Favresque situation.

Tarynfor12's picture

So many squawk about Woodson being needed and kept on the team if only as like Driver for his leadership contributions.IMO,that very quality should be put to the test with Woodson being asked to stay on the sideline with very limited snaps until needed based on the play of our youngsters who are the future of the team.

We have wrangled our way through the season for the most part without him and even better than when Woodson was in the game.

The time for departure arrives for all and though many believe injury shouldn't be the reason for a job loss and I agree to a point,however,when the replacement is doing better the injury makes a case to not start you anymore and it should be so here as these kids are building themselves through experience of a riddled season that most would have already packed in.

It would/is being argued if the Packers are better off now with Woodson but I think the last 6 weeks have proved that moving on is a much closer and easier decision than it was in the weeks up to his injury.

We have suffered the loss of an important roster spot with DD and hope the de-activating of him last week and the subsequent injuries and roster moves have open eyes wide enough so as not to repeat a bad decision in the first place of keeping him around for the sentimental tearful after this season of (youngster) success no matter how deep in the playoffs we get even the SB or swallowed and cast aside after one game.

We have groomed young players and the future looks bright as the day two years ago when the word dynasty was the song being sung and the early season of this year with the great ones seemed destined for it to end before it got into another gear.

When opportunity knocks open the door and take advantage...I hear it,how about you?

Evan's picture

I do think the Packers will be hard-pressed to remove Hayward from the slot. Maybe Woodson will come back as a full-time safety?

woodson4president's picture

Wood and Morgan safeties. House n tramon outside. Casey in slot n shields as dime.....what an awesome line up. We are going to torch da bears !

redlights's picture

Yes! This! Is! Right!

I don't think you can throw Tramon to the side this quickly. Maybe he's in a Crosby-style slump. Also, no telling who has a sophomore slump next year.

I think you'll see MD Jennings become a Peprah-type player; good enough to get the team through an injury, but not enough pure talent to excel.

Also remember; none of these guys can cover for 8 seconds. We still need a pass rush.

FourEyesBrewing's picture

How did Woodson grade out by PFF in the games that he's played? Was he better at safety than McMillian or Jennings have been? Is he better at pass defense or run support than either? Is he better than Hayward covering the slot receiver?

KennyPayne's picture

I would seriously considering trading Tramon this offseason if we can get a 2nd rounder or an impact player at OL, DL, or ILB in return.

Tramon is still marketable, and with (the younger and cheaper) Hayward, House, and Shields (and drafting another young CB next year), GB would still be very good at the position next season.

Evan's picture

I think that would be a huge mistake. You can never have enough quality DBs.

Fish/Crane's picture

a great line makes better DB's.

bryce's picture

Williams would bring a 6th rounder, 5th at best.

Evan's picture

For comparison's sake, the Packers sent the Eagles a 2nd round pick for Al Harris and a 4th round pick.

trvs's picture

No way. Yeah I have witnessed his attempts at tackling, but dude is still a legit cover corner for this team. More the merrier. 2010 playoffs were incredible and we are only a few games away from those make or break moments.

Tom's picture

Arod's going to get $150mm for seven years. Then they have to pay Matthews and Raji. Some players won't be back. Woodson, Wiiliams, Jennings, Finley....say good bye to three of them. It's economics folks.

Evan's picture

Woodson is gone for sure after the season. So is Jennings. Finley has 1 year left then who knows.

I'd rather have Williams over Raji.

cow42's picture

nope.
williams is old.

PackerBacker's picture

He's not old. He's 29. And he didn't even start his first few years. Plenty of tread on the tires.

cow42's picture

29's old for a corner.

PackerBacker's picture

They might be able to keep Wood if he'll agree to a renegotiation of his contract at Safety pay.

Tommyboy's picture

Interesting - years ago people slammed TT for "being cheap" with our secondary (which was, admittedly, awful) and just needing to sign an experienced vet. Now, we're wondering how to squeeze all of our talent on the field.

Now, when it comes to resign these guys, I suspect TT will get it done, but that will go unnoticed because they didn't play for another team.

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