GREEN BAY, Wis. — Losing Charles Woodson for the next six weeks or so is not the devastating injury to the Green Bay Packers’ defense that it would have been in recent years.
The broken collarbone Woodson suffered late in the fourth quarter of Green Bay’s Week 7 win over the St. Louis Rams will further test the Packers’ depth, but it can be overcome.
It’s not that Woodson isn’t still integral to Green Bay’s success on defense, but the 36-year-old who recently converted to safety in his 15th NFL season no longer is the game-changing, dynamic threat who was named to eight Pro Bowls and won the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award.
There’s no question Woodson is a leader in the Packers’ locker room, the most experienced player on defense, whom all of the young guys look up to. When Woodson won the Heisman Trophy in 1997, several of his current teammates were midway through the grueling life challenge that is second grade. Woodson was a star player whom rookies such as cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Jerron McMillian grew up watching as they prepared for their Pee Wee football games.
This is a player who is not living only on past accomplishments. He’s not still in the league simply for a paycheck. He wants a second Super Bowl ring and to add to his legacy with a career that ultimately will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
However, Woodson’s reputation paints him in a much better light than his current on-field production. He has been relatively invisible this season, not making the big plays that have defined his career. After tying for the NFL lead last season in interceptions in large part due to a propensity for picking off rookie quarterbacks, Woodson has only one interception nearing the midway point of this season. Facing this year’s top rookie quarterbacks, Seattle’s Russell Wilson (Week 3) and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (Week 5), Woodson came up empty in both games, each of which resulted in a Packers loss.
Green Bay’s coaching staff acknowledged that Woodson wasn’t the same player anymore when it chose to move him to safety during the offseason. A cornerback throughout his first 14 years in the league, Woodson had played safety in some defensive packages last season. But the decision by the Packers that he could no longer consistently cover wide receivers on the outside was the first admission that his incredible career finally was winding down.
Even at safety, opposing quarterbacks haven’t been afraid to throw near Woodson this season, and they’re doing so with success. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Saints quarterback Drew Brees targeted a receiver in Woodson’s area seven times in Week 4, completing six of those passes for 72 yards. Against the Colts a week later, Luck completed five of the eight passes thrown toward Woodson for 80 yards.
Aside from Woodson’s leadership, the Packers will miss his tackling and run-stopping ability near the line of scrimmage. That’s where Woodson remains disruptive, ranking third among NFL safeties with 14 stops. Unlike several of his peers at safety who already have double-digit missed tackles this season, Woodson has only three.
Woodson has been an every-down player for the Packers this season, playing 486 of the defense’s 507 snaps. McMillian has been backing him up in dime packages — where Woodson plays in the slot — and will assume those responsibilities now. McMillian’s best quality, seven games into his NFL career, is tackling, so Green Bay won’t lose much in that department.
McMillian and M.D. Jennings also will battle for snaps at the safety position originally occupied by Woodson in the base 3-4. This also will require third-year safety Morgan Burnett, who has been starting alongside Woodson, to take on more of a leadership role in the secondary.
Green Bay invested heavily in defensive players in this year’s draft, and this will be the first step in an eventual full-time transition to life after Woodson, who signed with the Packers in 2006 and has missed only three regular-season games since. The upcoming performances by Burnett, McMillian, Jennings, Hayward and Davon House will be a sign of whether the team will be able to get by after Woodson retires.
It’s not that the Packers won’t miss Woodson at all over the next six weeks, it’s just that his absence is not the problem it once would have been. They’ll miss his voice and presence on the field, but Woodson the player, at this point in his career, can be replaced from a production standpoint.