Packers Hope Woodson Back in Playmaking Role

Woodson (Bruce Kluckhorn - USA Today Sports)

Charles Woodson will make his return Saturday night for the playoffs. While the pass defense made strides when he was out with a broken collarbone, it might get a boost with his return in at least one key area. Plus, find out what defensive coordinator Dom Capers said about Woodson's role.

With less than two days until the Green Bay Packers face the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs, there is an air of mystery surrounding the return of Charles Woodson.

This much is certain: Woodson will suit up for the first time in 10 weeks since breaking his collarbone.

This much is less certain: How much Woodson will play and what kind of role he will have in the Packers' defensive backfield.

"It's good to have him back," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "We'll get him back into a number of our packages. So, we'll put him out there and see how it goes. The last couple weeks, he's worked in practice and all that. I know he's excited about going and we're excited about having him back."

After practicing for nearly a month, Woodson finally was cleared for game action early this week. The last game he played in, but did not finish, was the Oct. 21 game at St. Louis. Since then, the Packers have shuffled their secondary and their pass defense has improved in at least two key areas.

Over the last nine games, the Packers have allowed just 207.2 passing yards per game and 52.1 percent completions to opposing quarterbacks. Those numbers are down from 232.2 and 58.8 percent over the first seven games, though the Packers played some higher-profile quarterbacks earlier in the season.

In three of the last five games, the Packers have allowed 119 passing yards or less.

The Packers basically filled Woodson's void in the secondary with three players. M.D. Jennings took his spot at safety in the base defense, rookie Jerron McMillian took his spot in the dime and rookie Casey Hayward took his spot at slot cornerback in the nickel. Hayward, in particular, has thrived, becoming one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league this season.

Asked Thursday by Packer Report about how to fit Woodson in with what the Packers have established in his absence, Capers said, "Well, I've said this before – you know, Charles is a good football player. He's always here. During the course of the game, he's going to make two or three plays that are difference-making plays. So, I think the guys feel good about having him back in there. His experience, I think, helps especially as you enter the playoffs. He's played in a lot of playoff games. So, we'll just have to wait and see how it goes. But we've got guys ready to go in all the different packages, but we'll try to fit him in at different spots."

Woodson, 36, was having another fine season until his injury derailed it. Being used in a "playmaker" position, as head coach Mike McCarthy likes to say, Woodson ranked third on the team with 44 tackles and had 1.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and five passes defended.

In two games against quarterback Christian Ponder and the Vikings in 2011, Woodson was a disruptive force – particularly as a blitzer in the meeting at Lambeau Field and with two interceptions in Ponder's first career start at Minnesota.

Those multidimensional skills could be put to use this Saturday night. Of all the improvement the Packers have made with their pass defense this year, their ballhawking numbers took a bit of a dive with Woodson missing more than half the season. Outside of Hayward, who led the team with six interceptions, the Packers had just 12 other interceptions. Last season, they led the NFL with 31 picks.

For the first time under Capers, the Packers failed to finish first in the league in interception rate. In 2009, they picked off a high of 5.56 percent of opponent's pass attempts followed by 4.87 percent in 2011 and 4.55 percent in 2010. This season, that rate fell to 3.17 percent.

"I just think having Charles Woodson back on the field helps our football team," said McCarthy earlier this week. "Just what he's meant to our defense and his playmaking ability, his ability to make plays around the line of scrimmage, he's extremely productive."

Prior to this season, Woodson had only missed one game due to injury (in 2007) in his six years in Green Bay. The last time he had a layoff this long during the season was 2005, his last season in Oakland, when he broke his leg.

Because of the layoff, Capers will be cognizant of how Woodson holds up during the game.

"We'll see how it goes," said Capers. "You never know how many snaps you're going to be playing, what situations you're going to be in, but we'll keep an eye on him. We've obviously been playing without him since the Rams game, so it's been a long time, but we'll put him in there and see how many reps go and we'll try to monitor it."

But as to just how many and at what spot? Those are the big questions.

"We have him playing two or three different positions," said Capers. "It kind of depends on what personnel group we'll play and that will depend on what they use and how we're going to match up."


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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