GREEN BAY—Theoretically, Packers defensive backs Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward are competing for playing time.
Practically speaking, it doesn’t matter at the moment who’s winning the competition if they both keep playing like this.
Hyde and Hayward began the season at different positions. Hyde was starting at safety alongside Morgan Burnett. Hayward was the nickel cornerback.
That changed after the bye week, though. The less-talked-about move the Packers made defensively – aside from shifting Clay Matthews to inside linebacker on run downs – was establishing rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Burnett as the starting safety tandem, with Hyde moving into Hayward’s nickel turf.
It’s a job share of sorts, with Hyde the type of hybrid defender the Packers want against run-oriented offensive personnel, while Hayward might get the call against a specific slot receiver. Both are on the field in the dime package, when a sixth defensive back enters, so whose role is which is somewhat semantic anyway. It’s all matchup-based.
What matters is the two young defenders, who are both essentially in their second seasons if Hayward’s injury-ravaged 2013 is discounted, are both making high-impact plays within the arrangement, and the Packers defense is better for it.
“We’re out there just having fun. That’s all it comes down to,” Hyde said. “It’s not like me and him are butting heads every day trying to get on the field over the other. It’s nothing like that. Casey is one of my good friends on this team, and we both want to see each other be successful, which the past couple games we both have been.”
That’s certainly true. Two weeks ago against the Bears, Hyde snagged his first career interception while Hayward returned a pick 82 yards for a score. Last week against the Eagles, Hyde ran a punt back all the way and Hayward scooped and scored on a fumble.
Both play special teams as well as defense, but of the two, Hyde’s overall duties are more diverse. He calls himself a “rental” the way he shuffles back and forth between the meeting rooms of the safeties and cornerbacks. He likely would still get the call at safety if Burnett or Clinton-Dix would have to miss any time.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week he regretted not getting Hyde, a fifth-round draft pick from Iowa last year, more involved on defense more quickly as a rookie. The extent of his job description now speaks to how the coaching staff, in whatever role, wants him on the field more often than not.
“That’s the case, but at the same time they’re trying to get other guys on the field,” Hyde said. “We’re deep in the back end with a lot of guys who can make plays.”
Hayward is one of those guys, and as long as he’s healthy he seems to make something happen. His six interceptions in 2012 led all NFL rookies, and his three so far this season top the team.
If the ball has a tendency to find Hayward – the pick-six deflected off a Bears lineman’s helmet – the right-place-right-time rationale only goes so far. The former second-round pick intercepted 13 passes over his final two seasons at Vanderbilt, and his interceptions in back-to-back games earlier this season against the Dolphins and Panthers required superb reads and instincts.
He appreciates the good fortune bestowed on him last Sunday, though, when he got the call to blitz from the slot as Eagles QB Mark Sanchez botched the shotgun snap. The rest was easy.
“I haven’t gotten a sack, yet,” Hayward said. “I was hoping I’d get a sack, then the ball was there. I’ll take that one instead of the sack.”
He’ll also listen intently to any more predictions his mother wants to make. Hayward said she told him before the Chicago game he’d get a pick-six, and she said before the Philly game he’d score again, only she called an interception again.
“I hope she keeps telling me each and every week I’m going to do something positive,” Hayward said. “I’ll call her right before the game just so she can tell me something good.”
Right now it’s all good for the Packers defense, and the veterans in the Packers secondary who have helped show Hyde and Hayward the ropes are more than comfortable cutting them loose now.
Eighth-year cornerback Tramon Williams said he’s often taken a “careful” approach with young players, making sure they know where to go and what to do on the field. Any such concerns have long since been dismissed.
“With those guys, you don’t need that,” Williams said. “They’re into the playbook, they know where they’re supposed to be, they know their technique, and obviously it’s showing up on the field.
“That’s a bonus for us, for those guys to be young players and be to that point in their career where you don’t really have to worry about them.”
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