GREEN BAY, Wis. — Charles Woodson has openly questioned personnel and schematic decisions when things haven’t gone right for the Green Bay defense in seasons past.
As the Packers set out on a new season, Woodson didn’t feel the need to speak up and voice any misgivings when a different plan of attack was laid out for the defense.
“They said, ‘Hey, you’re playing safety. Get back there,’” Woodson said of the marching orders from the coaches. “That’s what I did.”
And, Woodson seemingly couldn’t be happier — and more in agreement — with what coordinator Dom Capers has drawn up to try to rescue Green Bay’s defense from the abyss.
The opening week of training camp for the Packers featured a whole lot of Woodson, the eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback, at safety. He’s still listed as a cornerback on the roster and ostensibly will play there with frequency when Green Bay morphs into its sub packages on passing downs, but the much-speculated position switch is no small matter for the 15th-year veteran.
“It’s different from corner, where you’re usually worried about a particular receiver and how he can threaten you as a corner,” Woodson said. “As a safety, you get to move around a little bit more and show different looks and not have that responsibility of just having one guy. It will be fun to play more safety. I’m getting a lot more of the calls as a safety. I’m used to being out at corner and seeing plays from that angle. To be able to play at safety and really, really, really understand the play even more, I think will play to my advantage.”
Consider it a new lease on a longstanding and prosperous life in football for Woodson, 35. He has lost a step to be effective on the perimeter to take a fleet-footed receiver one on one but remains savvy and instinctive enough to cover a lot of ground while patrolling the middle of the field and disrupt things from all kinds of angles.
“I think something that’s been very evident for Charles, number one throughout his career, he’s been a playmaker, whether he’s played the corner or the inside position,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “In our particular defense, we feel that he is a lot more valuable to us the closer he is to the ball because of the different positions he can play, the number of different things that we’re able to do with him.
”So that’s really part of the thinking of trying to get him closer to the ball and more involved because of his instincts. He plays the game a lot like a quarterback does from a defensive side.“
Through the first three practice days of camp – the Packers were off July 29 – Woodson has been the strong safety in their base scheme. Morgan Burnett is the incumbent free safety, picking up from where he left off after sliding back to replace injured Pro Bowl player Nick Collins early last season.
The Packers released Collins, who was hoping to make a comeback from a career-threatening neck injury, in April and then cut ties with six-year veteran Charlie Peprah on the camp reporting day July 25. Peprah, who had knee surgery in the offseason, wasn’t passed on his physical.
The departure of Peprah, who started 28 games as an adequate injury replacement at safety for the Packers the previous two seasons, caught some teammates by surprise but made perfect sense since the movement of Woodson was in the offing.
When Woodson isn’t technically at safety, as he shifts into his familiar slot role for coverage or blitzing purposes in the nickel and dime schemes, Green Bay will turn to one of a few young prospects to pair with Burnett. Second-year player M.D. Jennings, rookie Jerron McMillian (a fourth-round draft pick) and first-year player Anthony Levine have taken turns at the spot with the first-string defense early in camp.
The youth movement at defensive back for the Packers also could include second-year Davon House and rookie Casey Hayward (second round) by the start of the regular season. Both cornerbacks are creeping up the depth chart as struggling Sam Shields, the team’s nickel back the previous two seasons, slides down it – seventh-year veteran Jarrett Bush opened camp as the starter ahead of Shields, opposite Tramon Williams, in the base.
Woodson, though, continues to be the centerpiece for the secondary in what the proactive Capers wants to bring about for reversing the fortunes of the defense, which nosedived from a top-five unit in 2009 and 2010 to the league’s worst last season. The similarly 32nd-ranked pass defense was the biggest culprit, giving up far too many big plays on the back end in concert with a lackluster pass rush up front.
”I don’t think our energy was there last season,“ Woodson said in retrospect. ”It’s about having fun. For us a lot of times going out there on Sundays, it was work. We had games where we couldn’t get off the field.
“It was like work for us to go out there and try to figure out what we could do to stop the teams, and it just wasn’t happening,” he added. “It took away from the actual fun for the game. When you’re attacking and you’re getting home and you’re getting sacks and having tackles for losses, that builds that energy. That’s something that we look forward to having this year, and I think we will.”
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