What Does The Return Of Charles Woodson Mean For the Packers' Defense?

God I hope to see something like this on Saturday. - Jonathan Daniel

After a long wait, Charles Woodson returns to the field for the Green Bay Packers this weekend. How will his return effect a defense that has struggled with the Vikings this past month?

The Packers should get Charles Woodson back this week, but what should the Packers expect out of him right now? This is a confusing question for me at the moment. On one hand every fiber of my football knowledge says that Woodson has to be an upgrade at the safety position at least. M.D. Jennings has done a fine job and Jerron McMillian has shown promise, but each of these guys have put out below average games against the Vikings over the past month. On the other hand Woodson has been out of the line a long time and there has to be some issues with rust as well as the normal "he’s getting older" issues that have been creeping into his game for the past year or so. Where does the truth reside in this balancing act?

To find the answer to this question, there a few basic issues that need to be looked at….if Woodson can overcome these issues then things should be fine. If he can’t then he may not be the upgrade many of us are hoping for when he does return to the field.

Issue 1: Can he make the full transition to safety at this point in the season?

Charles Woodson has been one of the best slot corners in the league. When he’s on his game he can not only be a cornerback but linebacker in his ability to play the run, blitz, and go off in coverage. He’s smart, talented and still has enough quickness to stay with up and coming slot receivers of this league on short routes over the middle.

The thing is though, there is no reason to have Woodson in the slot cornerback spot right now. Rookie Casey Hayward has shined this year and is probably the better option in the slot. If someone would have told us that in the preseason, or even after week 1 when he was on the bench behind Jarrett Bush, we would not have believed it….but it’s the reality of the situation right now. He may not have quite the tackling prowess of Woodson, but he is better in coverage and has every bit the playmaking ability of Woodson.

Since Hayward is probably the better choice in the slot, at least for the nickel, this means that Woodson will probably play more safety this week. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a relatively new position. Woodson has not played full time safety yet during his career. He has filled in the safety position here and there, most notably during 2008 when the Packers were dangerously thin at the position. Woodson certainly has the football IQ in order to minimize the concern of this move but it is a transition nonetheless….and an awfully late time of the year in order to make such a transition.

Issue 2: How much does Woodson have left in the tank?

Charles Woodson is going to be in the Hall of Fame someday, but let’s be honest, his best football is not ahead of him. There is something sad about watching the great ones fade. It starts with some denials and memories of what was clouding what we see, but then when it’s out there a hollow feeling takes over and all you can do is just enjoy the last bit of the ride.

I had this feeling watching Woodson try and cover Reggie Wayne this year. At this point it started to become clear that Woodson just couldn’t cover the better receivers anymore, I’m not talking about the elite receivers mind you….I’m talking the ones who are very good but not the best as well. Woodson is still smart and still has great instincts, but he just can’t do what he could do a few years ago. Father Time always wins.

The biggest part of this issue is going to be his tackling ability. As the first issue discussed, no realistic game plan for the Packers will include Woodson going out and covering receivers in the slot as previous incarnations of Woodson could do. There is too much depth and talent at corner to do that for the Packers. What the Packers do need is a DB who can tackle and bring Adrian Peterson to the ground. Tramon Williams downright failed at this last week. M.D. Jennings never seems to be taking the right angles (and just lacks some of the physicality to bring a guy like AP down), and Morgan Burnnett can’t do it alone. Heck, just having a safety over the top of Erik Walden to help cover should he lose containment (and you know he will and often) would be helpful to stop some of those 20 yard runs.

But can Woodson do it? Last year Woodson was just as guilty as any other Packer defender not named Clay Matthews at missing tackles. He’s not quite as sure a tackler as he was in the past, but he’s got to be better than Jennings and McMillian…………right?

Issue 3: Rest versus Rust.

For all my handwringing over age we should be sure of one thing…Woodson has fresh legs. Woodson hasn’t played in two months. That means that probably about as fresh as he was back in Week 1 of this year. That’s good and should cut down on some of the "Father Time" type issues. Then again, it does also mean that he has not been on the field for two months and not as familiar with the young guys around him as he may be if he was out there week in and week out. Mix in a new position and it may lead to some sloppy play. He wasn’t exactly sharp in last year’s playoff game and that was just missing two weeks.

Once again Woodson’s experience and football IQ should lessen some of the worry here, but it is still a legitimate concern. The playoffs are not the time to start feeling things out and working a guy back into the lineup. Slow starts aren’t an option, so Woodson is going to have to get the kinks out of his game quick.

Conclusion

The Packers are going to need a bit more juice in their defense this week. They just gave up 37 points to the Vikings….and if that doesn’t make you die a little inside then you may have already lost your soul. There is a very good chance that Charles Woodson could be just what the doctor ordered for this defense, but only if Woodson can find a place and get up to speed quickly. If Woodson struggles then the Packers could be in trouble.

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