Where Will Charles Woodson Fit In This Defense?

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The Packers are expecting the return of Charles Woodson very soon, but where is the best spot to play him when he does return? Is there still even a place left?

Tomorrow the injury reports come in for the Packers and then we will have a pretty good understanding of how the Packers will look for the upcoming game against the Lions, but here is an interesting nugget of news to digest on the injury front until we can get the full report. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is reporting the Packers hope to have Charles Woodson ready to return for the December 16th game against the Chicago Bears. This is obviously good news. The return of Charles Woodson will provide a bit of a makeover to the defense by adding more toughness and playmaking ability to a defense that was steamrolled last week against Adrian Peterson. But there is a lingering question that rattles around in the background….is there still a place for Woodson in the Packers lineup?

If you ask the coaches, or the JSO apparently, the answer is clear…yes! Woodson brings experience, leadership, and playmaking ability to a defense that could use that right now. More important though may be Woodson’s ability to float between corner and safety seamlessly and add a bit of unpredictability to a defense that looks pretty stale without Clay Matthews.

On the other hand this all lists off his past achievements and runs dangerously close to remember the player Woodson was rather than seeing the player who Woodson is right now. The player returning for the Bears game is not the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year anymore. He’s a player with diminishing cover skills and decreasing speed. Worse of all, he may be a player without a home in this defense right now due to the youth movement going on in the secondary.

The C-Woodback

Let’s start with looking at Woodson returning to the role he occupied at the beginning of the year. This is probably where Woodson will be used most frequently, but it may not be the best fit anymore. For those who may not remember, Woodson’s role (or the "C-Woodback" for this post) is a combination safety and slot corner. The C-Woodback would play safety opposite Morgan Burnett in the 3-4 base formations and then move into the slot corner role in nickel situations.

The biggest advantage to using Woodson in this role is that it gives the Packers an uncanny flexibility in the nickel formations. Woodson plays much more physical than the other alternative for the slot corner, rookie Casey Hayward. This allows the Packers to line up in the nickel but still cover the run adequately or change up the blitzers. Woodson also excels at covering the hybrid TE’s at this point in his career.

The biggest disadvantage is that at this point in his career Woodson is not as good a slot corner as Hayward when matching up with a WR. Woodson has struggled this year when matching up with top notch receivers lining up in the slot (see his day against Reggie Wayne against the Colts). Hayward has shown as much playmaking ability when moving on the ball and has the cover skills to match up with most receivers in the league…and especially the quick and shifty receivers that teams love to put in the slot. Sitting Hayward in these situations, or moving him outside to cover more traditional X receivers may not be the best use of Hayward and present a new sort of mismatch for an offense to exploit.

Full Time Safety

Another solution to where to put Woodson is to make the move to safety complete. It’s hard to argue with the pairing of Woodson and Burnett as the starting safeties. Woodson would then become the new Troy Polamalu for the Packers defense. The two most celebrated 3-4 defenses of our time (the Steelers and the Ravens) use these experienced playmaking safeties in Polamalu and Ed Reed. Woodson could fit into that mold rather easily and still has the savvy and knowledge to succeed in this role.

In this situation he would be sending M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian to the bench. This isn’t quite as distressing as benching Hayward, but both McMillian and Jennings have had their highlights this year….and neither has proven to be much of a liability. Really though I don’t think many Packer fans will weep for the reduction of time for either player.

The real problem would be limiting what Woodson can do. Woodson makes his best plays at the line of scrimmage, baiting QB’s and making them wonder if he is going to blitz or drop into coverage. Sending Woodson to the back of the defense permanently takes this guessing game away…or just make it look like the Packers are constantly sending the safety in on a blitz. Having Woodson there to play these games with QB’s and offensive coordinators is the biggest upside to having him on the field in the first place and it might be tough to watch a full transition to safety occur.

The New Dimeback

A compromised position on the C-Woodback may be in order. In this situation Woodson would be the slot dime corner and safety in base and nickel packages. This would allow the Packers to still use the young talented corners they have in Hayward and Davon House, and use each of them where they fit best, while still giving Woodson to roam the line of scrimmage in passing downs head hunting with the best of them. Once again this will probably limit the snaps of McMillian and Jennings, but Woodson should be an upgrade over either of them.

The biggest hindrance this may give is the fact that the Packers will need to lose some bigger bodies in the front seven in order to get that many defensive backs on the field. Prepare to see lots of 2-3-6 or 1-4-6 alignments which are extra vulnerable to the run. Then again, seeing how bad the run defense was this past weekend it may not be as much a step down as many think.

Conclusion

It’s good news that Woodson is coming back to the Packers, and the Packers will also need to figure out a way to get Woodson on the field. The problem is that many of the younger guys have stepped up to help the Packers manage the impossible task of replacing Woodson, most especially Hayward and Burnett. Cutting the snaps of these young players now may be a setback for the Packers both now and in the future. The Packers will have to strike that delicate balance of getting the best players on the field against the need to place the players they have in the right spot which brings out their skills. If anyone is up for that task it’s got to be Dom Capers.

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