GREEN BAY, Wis. — What exactly constitutes a 6-to-10 percent change in the role of Packers veteran defensive back Charles Woodson? That is the question that coach Mike McCarthy has left the entire NFL with, allowing for plenty of interpretation and guesswork as to how Green Bay plans to use Woodson this upcoming season.
“I don’t want to get too detailed schematically,” McCarthy added after issuing the approximate percentages during the team’s offseason practices in June. “We’re not recreating the wheel. I would define (Woodson) as a playmaker in our defense. So it’s our responsibility to make sure he’s in a position to make plays.”
At age 35, Woodson is getting ready for his 15th season in the NFL. But while many players his age are out of the league or having drastic decreases in their level of production, most statistics suggest that the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year is still getting it done at a high level.
Woodson tied for the NFL lead last season with seven interceptions, sharing the honor with Patriots 25-year-old Kyle Arrington and Chargers 27-year-old Eric Weddle.
Advanced statistics through ProFootballFocus.com are also quite favorable of Woodson’s performance in 2011. According to their data, Woodson went in coverage 526 times in the regular season and was the primary defensive back targeted on 79 passes, with 49 receptions being given up and four touchdowns. That totals to an opposing quarterback rating of 63.6, the 12th-best of any cornerback in the NFL. New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis — widely regarded as the best secondary player in the league —tops that list, adding to the validity of that statistic.
“I’ve been around the game a long time and I’ve seen just about everything,” Woodson said. “It’s all about preparation throughout the week, getting ready and knowing what teams are doing to try to attack you. Now, at this stage, it’s not so much about the receiver any more. It’s about formations, it’s about the offensive set, it’s about their personnel that they have in the game, where they are on the field, on their side of the 50 or our side of the 50.”
While young, elite cornerbacks like Revis are almost always lined up outside near the sideline defending the opposing team’s best wide receiver, Woodson is no longer that type of player. Last season on passing plays, Woodson guarded the slot receiver 52 percent of the time. On the other 48 percent of passes, Woodson split time between safety and outside cornerback.
It is quite uncommon for a starting cornerback to play in the slot that frequently. Only 24 defensive backs in the entire NFL played more than 50 percent of their passing downs in the slot, but this is an area where Woodson was very successful. Four of his seven interceptions came while guarding the slot receiver, and Woodson’s quarterback rating allowed on passes in his area was the best in the league. Plus, while defending in the slot on 272 snaps, Woodson’s primary receiver assignment was only targeted with 37 passes all season, with just 22 being completed and none of them for touchdowns.
If McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have similar statistics at their Lambeau Field headquarters, it might begin to explain why Woodson played only in the slot during the Packers’ minicamp practices. During 11-on-11 drills throughout those sessions in June, every time Green Bay’s defense lined up in their 3-4 scheme, Woodson was not on the field. As soon as the defense switched to a nickel or dime package, Woodson lined up in the slot.
However, Woodson believes that won’t be the case once the season begins.
“As we move along, of course I’ll do more,” Woodson said. “But right now we’re just piecing it together. You don’t want to go out there and pull something or strain something, so I’m kind of easing into it. The easiest thing for me to do was to get in at nickel and play some dime and take those reps.”
But it’s becoming increasingly more obvious that Woodson’s 6-to-10 percent change in role will include even more snaps defending in the slot.
Though Woodson has played safety in certain packages in recent seasons, that too will likely be an area he plays more — especially with Packers Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins being released this offseason due to a serious neck injury.
“I’ll just continue to do the things I’ve done in the past,” Woodson said. “You know, I play a little bit here, a little bit there, where I’m needed each week and make the team better.
“I’ve played a great deal of safety already since I’ve been here, and whether or not I play some this year, I don’t think it will be any different from what I’ve done in the past. The main objective is to win games and win the Super Bowl, and that’s really all I’m focused on.”
McCarthy wants to keep his answers vague in regard to Woodson’s exact role this upcoming season, and understandably so, but the numbers have started to make it all relatively clear. Once a few 2012 regular season games are in the books, Woodson’s breakdowns seem to show that he’ll almost certainly have spent most of his time in the slot, while stepping back to the safety position on occasion, with appearances at outside cornerback being few and far between.