Every cornerback wishes he was Charles Woodson; you hear college cornerbacks during the draft process mention his name as someone they’d like to emulate, you hear coaches gush about his exceptional ability to conceptualize the game of football and you hear the admiration of his teammates on his leadership abilities. And rightly so, Woodson is one of those rare breed of players that has the skill set to transcend the game of football; Woodson doesn’t play defensive back, Charles Woodson defines how good a cornerback can truly be. As mentioned by fellow writer Chad Toporski, Pro Football Focus actually created a position called the “Woodson” that “mixes one part cornerback, one part safety, one part linebacker”, which naturally only has one member, Charles Woodson.
However, I do wonder if Woodson’s uniqueness is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the Packers defensive secondary has a first hand view of how great a “Woodson” can be; but on the other hand, what happens when someone who isn’t Charles Woodson tries to play like Charles Woodson?
Stay with me here; Charles Woodson’s greatest skill at this point is his exceptional ability to predict routes and offenses; as such, usually when Woodson gambles on a play he’s right. I would argue that while his physical skills have diminished, as is natural for a player after 15 seasons, his gambling acumen has kept him near the top of the list when it comes to the best defensive backs. So what happens when you have young defensive backs like Morgan Burnett, Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush trying to emulate Woodson? In one word: disaster.
Let’s take a look at much maligned defensive back Jarrett Bush, who for so long was the whipping boy for all that was wrong with the Packers defense until he “redeemed” himself during the Super Bowl. The Packers use Bush in a manner very similar to the “Woodson”, as Bush is often at the line of scrimmage as a “slot defender” and a legitimate option to rush the quarterback. At this point, I might even argue that Bush is better or at least on par with Woodson physically. But as Packers fans can attest, Bush is often a liability in coverage because he never seems to know where the ball is in the air; it’s not because he can’t track the ball, I suspect its because Bush is often so caught up in trying to position himself for the big play that often times he loses track of the receiver and is out of position as a result. Now why would Bush be attempting to jump routes for interceptions? Because he sees Woodson do it every day, and of course Bush wishes he could play like Woodson.
What was one of the biggest reasons that the Packers gave up so many big plays last year? It’s not that the defensive backs were outsmarted or outplayed; I’m sure Dom Capers’ defense allows it’s players to take risks if the reward (especially interceptions) is good enough, and true to form, the Packers led the league with 31 interceptions, 8 more than the next team. However, the Packers also led the league in terms of giving up passing plays of 20 yards or more. Those two statistics combined, added with the fact that the Packers gave up the most passing yards in NFL history can attest to the fact that the Packers secondary was going for the big interception, even at the cost of giving up the big play. Simply put, the Packers defensive secondary took too many risks, and while sometimes they hit the jackpot, often they got burned.
I also think psychologically the 2011 Packers secondary was compensating for the fact that interceptions defined the 2010 Super Bowl Champions Packers defense. If you look at week 17 against the Bears (which ended in a Nick Collins interception), the wildcard against the Eagles (where Tramon Williams ended the game with an interception), the divisional game against the Falcons (where Tramon Williams changed the course of the game at the end of the half), the conference game against the Bears (where BJ Raji did his best imitation of a defensive back and scored a pick-six), to finally the Super Bowl, where Nick Collins scored a pick-six, every game was defined by an interception, and in many cases one interception eventually lead to the Packers winning.
In 2011, the loss of a consistent pass rush up front along side Clay Matthews meant there wasn’t much quarterback pressure and as a result, opposing quarterbacks where attempting a lot of throws. To compensate, the secondary took it upon themselves to change the course of the game by making interceptions, which ultimately proved an unwise gamble.
Now why would the secondary want to gamble more on interceptions? Because Charles Woodson gambles and usually pulls out a big play. So from that perspective, it doesn’t seem that odd that other defensive backs would try to emulate Woodson and try to change the course of the game with a big interception. He’s one of the best in the game, so why wouldn’t you want to emulate him? Unfortunately, there is only one Charles Woodson and just because Charles Woodson could have made the proper read, baited the quarterback just right, got into the right position at the right angle and at the right time to make the interception doesn’t mean that Jarrett Bush, Morgan Burnett or Sam Shields etc. could have made the interception.
At the end of the day, as Head Coach Mike McCarthy has repeatedly said, the defense can improve simply by working on its fundamentals. As long as the defense is fundamentally sound, I don’t think the Packers will run into the calamity that was the 2011 season. They’re simply too good for that. It’s stupid to gamble when you don’t understand the game, and the same is true in football, it doesn’t make any sense to gamble for the big interception when you don’t understand how the play works; if a defensive back has safety help over top then the risk is minimal, but if the defensive back is all alone on an island, then the risk of failure outweighs the value of the reward of the interception. Once the defensive secondary figures that out, then it’s time for the ball hawks to fly
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.