Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward stepped a little closer toward the spotlight last week, getting his first NFL start in place of an injured Sam Shields.
Now, that spotlight may shine even brighter on him.
With Charles Woodson out several weeks with a broken collarbone, the Packers defense will need someone to take Woodson’s slot corner spot in the often-used nickel and dime packages.
It could be Hayward, who has burst onto the scene with four interceptions, tied for the league lead with two other players. All of those interceptions have come in the last three games, with Hayward playing mostly outside at cornerback. But he has taken some snaps inside – in the slot – as well, and says he’s ready for the added responsibility if asked.
“I feel pretty comfortable,” Hayward said of playing both outside and inside. “The big thing is just knowing the defense. I feel like I have a grasp of the defense. I’m still trying to learn it like the back of my hand but, overall, I’m pretty much getting a grasp of it.”
Hayward has had no trouble obtaining a grasp on the ball. Mike McCarthy spoke last week about Hayward getting his hands on a few passes in practice, and the head coach said he did so again on Wednesday, the first practice of the work week in preparation to play Jacksonville on Sunday.
“Anytime you take a rookie and play him in a couple different positions in a multi-scheme defense, I think that says a little bit about the young man,” McCarthy said.
It says a lot, though it wouldn’t be accurate to call Hayward the “replacement” for Woodson. In the base defense, Woodson started at safety, a role that will fall to either M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian. The rookie McMillian also has played a slot position in the dime.
Woodson’s simple presence on defense will be missed, because he was just as likely to blitz as cover from the slot. Teammates also considered him one of the most physical players on the defense, and he had a knack for getting the ball out, with nine forced fumbles over the 2009-10 seasons.
His leadership should still be a factor – McCarthy said he’s around now “more than ever” getting treatment for his injury – because he’ll be in the position meetings and on the sidelines with the younger players. But his absence from the field could take away one of those “targets” offenses had to game plan around.
“He’s a guy that people have to account for every time,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I know if I was playing (against) our defense, I’d want to know where he was at, whether he’s in the high safety or down in the slot, whether he was coming on pressure.”
No stand-in for Woodson is going to command that type of attention, and it’s hard to envision the Packers suddenly making Hayward a blitzer from the slot when he’s covering receivers so well and making plays on balls in the air.
That said, it will be interesting to see how much quarterbacks will challenge Hayward – or the Packers’ other up-and-coming cornerback Davon House, who made his debut as an outside cover man last week and stands to get more involved now, too – without a disruptive Woodson to worry about.
With veteran Tramon Williams and his 21 interceptions over the last 4½ seasons defending on the other side, Hayward expects the ball to still come his way.
“They can throw the ball at me all they want,” he said. “They’re going to catch a few, but I feel like I’m going to make some plays as well.”
His teammates are counting on it, whether it’s Hayward, House, Jennings or McMillian who needs to make that play. Veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said Woodson’s absence needs to be a “rallying point” for all the young defensive backs that will get major opportunities as this season continues.
The defense, which has climbed from last in the league in yards allowed a year ago to middle of the pack this season, doesn’t “expect any drop-off,” according to Pickett. It expects to remain productive.
“We just have to go out there and be us,” Jennings said. “We can’t go out there and try to be Charles Woodson. We just have to do our job.” Additional coverage - Oct. 24