The Double-Edged Sword Of Charles Woodson

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Green Bay Packers CB Charles Woodson may not keep smiling if the rest of the pass defense doesn't step up soon.

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

 

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Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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  • Zaphod Beeblebrox

    Nick Collins made the game-ending INT in the Week 17 game vs. Da Bears in 2010. Shields’ game-clinching INT was at the end of the NFCC game…

    • Thomas Hobbes

      Oops, my mistake. Love the name by the way.

  • http://allpackers.com nick perry

    Great article and read. I have to say though, Bush still hasn’t “redeemed” himself in my book. There’s just to many plays over the years where I watch the other team score and there’s Bush, 5 yards away holding his hands up asking himself “what happened”! I think you’re dead on about the rest. Lets hope that Wood has another great year (at least) left in him. As we’ve seen time and again, you can’t defy father time.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      My feeling with Bush is that he’s found his place on the team and he’s good at what he does. He’s never going to be a guy that you can leave on an island, but on special teams and as a dime back he’s pretty good. It’s like asking Jermichael Finley to run block, sure he can do it, but that’s just not his game.

      • http://allpackers.com nick perry

        He’s great on special teams I agree. He may even have his few moments as a dime back. But he also has those “how did that guy beat me by 5 yards” look on his face . way more often. I think you’re the very 1st person I’ve ever seen stick up for Bush when speaking of his pass coverage skills.

        • Oppy

          Rarely does a WR get much separation from Bush at all.. Until Jarret turns his head and starts looking for the ball.

          Jarret Bush can, and does, blanket WR’s. He just completely falls apart once he needs to locate the ball in the air. It’s like chewing gum while patting his head with one hand and rubbing his belly in circles with the other for him. But up until that moment, he’s usually glued to the WR’s hip.

  • Ed Schoenfeld

    The major point applicable to 2012 is in the last paragraph:

    “…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.”

    I think this is what the DB players and coaches mean when they explain a mistake by sating there was a lack of communication — the cover back did not know they were on an island (or the safety did not know they were supposed do be deep support) for that route on that play.

    So what this amounts to is that someone needs to step up at safety and take on the Nick Collins role. Morgan Burnett was supposed to do that after Collins got hurt last year, but did not succeed consistently. Hopefully his failure was the result of inexperience; he seems to have more than enough talent for the position.

    2012 sees one more year of experience under Burnett’s belt, a full summer of work on the defensive playbook for everyone, and enough changes in the front seven to shave a half-second off the average time the opposing quarterback has to throw. Hopefully that is enough.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      This could also be part of the problem. Say a cornerback decides to jump a pass but the safety behind him doesn’t know or can’t predict that happening and you run into the same problem. The other problem is that I think Morgan Burnett also ran into the same problem where he was often out of position after failing to make the big play.

  • FireMMNow

    I think it has less to do with Woodson, and more to do with a defensive coaching staff that preaches turnover plays. Shurmur preached a bend but do not break defense. Capers and the defensive staff seem to feel the turnover play is more important and they are willing to accept a certain level of risk to get that play. And in today’s NFL of pass happy offenses and offensive slanted rules, it is becoming more and more difficult to not “break” as a defense. Other than a few elite defensive teams, the winner of most games comes down to which team has more complete offensive possessions.

    Most teams in the NFL have players similar to woodson. Are the steelers defensive players worse off because they are trying to emulate Troy Polamalu? How about the ravens and ed reed? The Packers allow their DBs to jump routes, some teams do not (as much). Young/inexperienced safeties and no pass rush make Dom’s system difficult to play. The DBs gave up a ton of big plays last year, but who is to say that with an awful pass rush the end of those big play possessions would not have had the same result?

    • PackersRS

      I agree with this. I’d take it even further, it’s a core principle of MM’s team philosophy to win the turnover battle, and both the offense and defense are catered to that goal. Though it’s common knowledge that turnovers win games, structuring the team to max out their chances is not. MM got it from Marty Schottenheimer.

      Though Thomas isn’t exactly wrong. I don’t have access to the playbook but IIRC the players and coaches themselves said that there was leeway to gamble in schemes, but the players were taking it one step further, gambling when they were not supposed to.

      And regarding Bush, I disagree. I’ve never seen a player with such inability to track the ball in the air as Jarrett Bush. It’s not because of positioning, I’ve seen plenty balls where he is positioned to make the play, but simply fails to.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I’m sure the coaches preach getting the big play, but they also coach not leaving your teammates out to dry and not abandoning your assignment and trying for the big play. I’m not saying that the secondary shouldn’t shoot for turnovers, they just have to be smart about it.

      I also think that having a Charles Woodson/Ed Reed/Troy Polamalu runs into the same problem. You don’t think that younger players on the Ravens and Steelers don’t try to emulate Reed and Polamalu and fail? Their defensive secondaries are also definitely more experienced then the Packers, so maybe they covered up their mistakes better.

      • FireMMNow

        I guess I do not think it makes a difference if you have a veteran risk taker in the defensive backfield or not. Would the same be said if the packers had antoine winfield, a player who rarely takes chances and tackles extremely well? Would the young CBs see that the highest paid corner on their team is a great tackler and start spending time after practice on tackling drills? I think it has much more to do with scheme and philosophy.

        • Thomas Hobbes

          Well the problem with your argument is that you can’t practice tackling, which is one of those weird things about the NFL, if your team tackles poorly, what do you do about it?

          As for emulating Winfield, I’m sure some cornerbacks do that, but if the defensive coaches are saying “you should be like Charles Woodson and jumping passes” I’m guessing Woodson is the one they are going to try to copy.

          One question I’ve had is do you think Tramon Williams looked up more to Al Harris of Charles Woodson? I would think Harris since press coverage is both of their fortes.

  • FourEyesBrewing

    I think the statistics got the better of you. Yes, looking at the number of 20+ yard plays and the number of interceptions *might* mean that players were baiting the QB to throw the ball and make an interception instead of shutting down the WR, but it could mean a lot of other things. Maybe all those big plays were due to missed assignments because Collins wasn’t around to help direct the secondary. We saw it all the time – a corner thinks he has help over the top but doesn’t. That doesn’t mean he’s going for the interception, that’s just miscommunication. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I would need more proof that the two events/statistics weren’t independent.

    • PackersRS

      Yeah, to me that stat speaks more about the safeties than the secondary as a whole.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I’d argue that it’s a miscommunication that stems from a cornerback trying to make the splashy play. There were plenty of occasions where both safeties would be off doing something else, like one was covering a running back/tight end while the other was covering one deep half, and the cornerback without safety help tries to jump the play, I don’t think that’s a miscommunication, but rather a cornerback trying to do too much. But maybe you are right and Burnett doesn’t have the experience to direct the defensive backfield.

      • FourEyesBrewing

        What I saw was a lot of cornerbacks letting the receiver get behind them to take away the underneath throw and help out in case there was a screen or dump to a RB. I would say that’s not trying to make a flashy play, that’s what they should be doing IF they have help from the safety. When they don’t have help… that’s another story.

  • marpag

    Thanks for the article. I have no real argument with anything you say. I would just add one thing: the defensive backfield just isn’t as good as a lot of Packer fans think it is.

    Following the awesome Super Bowl season, fans expected great things again last year. But as the season progressed and the defense failed miserably, some fans failed to notice that the emperor wasn’t wearing any pants.

    I do agree (very much) with those who site the failure of the pass rush. I also agree that almost all of the Packer backfield gambled so much that they became target practice for double moves. (I actually thought Tramon was one of the worst in that respect.) I also agree that Tramon’s performance might have been hindered by an injury.

    But still, I’d add this: The Packers defensive backfield is not awesome.

    The loss of Collins was catastrophic. I don’t know why more people haven’t written about that. Burnett may become a solid starter in the future, but he wasn’t solid last year. Peprah is an even worse liability. Shields totally regressed. I’m hopeful that Tramon can get back to form, but do we really know that the Super Bowl year wasn’t Tramon’s one year wonder?

    Maybe I’m just a skeptic, but it seems like realism to me. You’re only as good as the last time you took the field. In my mind, until they actually perform better, they’re just not a great unit.

    Sadly, I would say the same about the D-line and the backers too. The bottom line is that the defense was a disaster last year.

    • FireMMNow

      I think this site has documented the failure of the defense pretty well throughout last season and the offseason. Tramon had a very good year before the superbowl season, so i think it is pretty safe to say that he is not a one year wonder. And yes, losing Collins was catastrophic, losing an all pro player always is. But what can you do about it? He is gone this year as well, so writing more about the importance of nick collins is kind of an exercise in futility. He is not ever going to play for the Packers again so it would be the same as writing an article explaining how much better the D would be this year if Reggie White would rise from his grave and suit up for the Pack.

      • Steve Cheez

        Great idea,FMMN! Bring back Reggie! Nitchzke would be good too. And if we could get Hutson, too, maybe we could stop hearing about Shaky Smithson?

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I would say that Woodson and Williams are a pretty good cornerback tandem and Shields and Bush are also pretty serviceable as your 3rd and 4th options. Maybe not the best in the league but definitely good enough to get to the Super Bowl and definitely not as bad as they were last year.

      Of course the lost of Collins was terrible, but most people seem to believe that the lack of pass rush is more to blame than instability in the backfield. I’m not sure if that’s true, but if you look at the this year draft of a pass rushing OLB, a pass rushing DE and a cornerback, safety apparently wasn’t a huge issue until the 4th round. Maybe that was just how the draft went but it is pretty telling on what the Packers were thinking.

  • Tarynfor12

    Emulating,gambling,miscommunication,alone on an island…all things that happen when your pass rush is…hmm,how does one describe the ‘invisible’?
    There was/is nothing really wrong with our pass defense except for the wrench lodged into the DL that couldn’t be picked up and used/played with correctly.
    No matter the direction of blame,poor tackling by Shields,Bush being assumed lost,Woodson over gambling as we all know,Williams injury,the loss of Collins,no one home at the House,questions of Burnett…none of these will be proved true without them occurring with a viable pass rush.
    Without QB pressure…carving the turkey becomes a weekly event as seen last year.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I’m sure all of that lead to the 2011 season, but the question you have to ask is what was the root cause? Was the lack of pass rush responsible for the secondary trying to compensate by going for the big play? Was the loss of Collins leading to Burnett calling plays the start of why the backfield seems out of whack?

      • Tarynfor12

        Yes,I believe the DL and the total lack of pass rush was the problem.
        Turnover differential wasn’t effected as we have guys that can jump routes but, we don’t have guys that can cover WRs as long as the DL was being dictated too.

        • Tarynfor12

          “You guys watch the games,” Woodson said. “You’re seeing the same things we do. You see quarterbacks sitting in the pocket, getting off their first read, getting to the second read and maybe getting to the third read. That’s hard. You can be a great cover guy but if you have to cover for five or six seconds during the course of the game, that’s hard on you in the defensive backfield. We look forward to shoring that up this season and being able to play the way we love to play.”

  • Big T

    Where’s Buckley when you need him?

  • devilsadvocate

    Actually, the position Charles Woodson plays that you describe as one part cornerback, one part linebacker and one part saftey is capable of and played by one other NFL player. Troy Polamalu of the steelers, also a Dom Capers defense. It’s on of the key pieces of defenses he couched or created and he’s looking for a replacement when Woodson eventually leaves. The problem is, other than those two guys, it’s not someething you can find. He may be able to do something similar with a few guys rotating and I agree about bosh’s talent at the line of scrimmage, at least. The rest of your article seems very well researched and written.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      Just according to the website, the only “Woodson” type player is Charles Woodson (they were referring to slot backs, so there’s a good chance that they didn’t consider Polamalu, even though he sort of does the same thing). I do wonder what the Packers will do when Woodson retires, do they retool their defense now that they don’t have a “Woodson” type player or do they try to draft one?

    • PackersRS

      No. Polamalu doesn’t play slot CB. He doesn’t play CB at all.

      He plays safety. Granted, in a unique way, when he’s on the field the Steelers play a lot of cover 3.

      He has the function of a rover.

      • Thomas Hobbes

        Agreed, Polamalu is a safety which is why he probably wasn’t considered as a “Woodson”. But he kinda of does the same sorts of things as Woodson such as rushing the quarterback, playing up at the line and covering tight ends etc.

        • Steve Cheez

          Perhaps we should really be calling it the “Butler”?

  • Oppy

    All the young CB’s credit Woodson for teaching them how to study film. (For the record, Woodson credits Rod Woodson for teaching him.)

    The issue is, Woodson’s style of studying film is memorize two or three specific personnel groupings and sets in a specific situation- let’s say, memorize a play the offense has used occasionally on third and long in the redzone with 2 wrs, 2 TE one split one tight, and if you see it on the field, trust your gut, and sell out for the pick.

    The problem is, 1) not every young DB has Woodson’s eye for detail in the way the offense lines up, and certainly few have his “gut feeling” ability, and 2) very few young DB’s have his physical talents and his keen ability to give up just enough ground to lure a QB into making what seems to be a safe throw, while keeping the play within striking distance without disaster looming.

    His understanding of leverage and angles, as well as his total feel for the game, are what allow Woodson to do what he has always done. Young guys should not necessarily be encouraged to attempt it. They should aspire to hone their craft to the point where they may one day be able to emulate it.

    I think Williams has the talent to pull it off. The rest of them have no business trying to play like woodson.

    This is a thought I shared here months ago, its interesting to see others have pondered the same.

    • Thomas Hobbes

      I’m really interested in how you know how Woodson does film study. I’m sure the Packers wish they had 5 “Woodsons” on the field, but it might not be the best idea to let them try to be Woodson if it’s not within their ability.

      • Oppy

        Thomas, prepare to have your mind completely blown:

        Per Charles Woodson, in an article posted TODAY, on JSO:

        “It’s just about the preparation throughout the week and getting ready — knowing what teams are trying to do,” Woodson said. “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 the personnel — who they have in the game, where they are on the field, their side of the 50, our side of the 50. It’s not as much about the receiver anymore as it is about the team we’re playing.”

        http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/sports/158624745.html#!page=1&pageSize=10&sort=newestfirst

        ;) ;)

        • Oppy

          Not too shabby, huh? :)

  • Wagszilla

    I hope that the other CBs “play like Woodson” in one area: tackling.

    Wood is an amazing tackler and last year part of the reason for the big plays was YAC which was allowed for by abysmal tackling (I’m staring directly into your soul, Sam Shields).

    As far as the defense in general: more pressure on QB and better Safety play and I think we’ll be good.

    • marpag

      Yikes. Woodson was charged with 18 missed tackles last season, more than any other player on the entire team. If you want to call him an “amazing tackler”, you may want to use the past tense when you do it.

      This is what a mean when I say that some people don’t seem to realize that the emperor isn’t wearing any pants.

      • Oppy

        No one notices the Emperor isn’t wearing pants? That certainly doesn’t speak very highly of his, um, stature.

        • marpag

          Let’s cut him some slack. Maybe the Packers are just showing their “sub-package.”

          • Oppy

            Perhaps we should just cut him some -slacks-.

  • Mojo

    Have to side with you marpag on this issue. Yup, the pass-rush was horrible last year, but boy, did our secondary get exposed. C-Wood was (and the key word is was) a great tackler for a secondary guy, but last year he gambled way too much and was out of position for much of the time. Another thing about Wood, because he tries to bait QB’s all the time he often needs to go from 0 to 60 in a second which causes him to lose his footing. I don’t know how many times I’ve noticed him lying on the ground. He needs to let the pick-six come to him instead of forcing it. If he can forget about R-Wood’s record C-Wood would be a fine cover guy.

    Since Collins left, I’d say the rest of the secondary has potential, but haven’t shown much consistency. They essentially lost Collins and Williams early in the season (if you can’t lift 50 pound weights like Tramon after the nerve damage, you’re pretty much lost in the NFL). The rest of the guy’s didn’t really step-up either.