The very thought had A.J. Hawk fired up. Having seen Charles Woodson on the practice field for weeks, the Green Bay Packers veteran inside linebacker can’t wait to see the defense’s heart-and-soul leader back in game action.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday that the 36-year-old veteran safety has been cleared to return for Saturday night’s NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Woodson deferred to team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie and gave his broken collarbone as much time to heal as possible, sitting out Sunday’s regular-season finale at Minnesota, which was the ninth straight game Woodson missed following the Oct. 21 injury.
But now that the Packers are in win-or-go-home mode, Woodson is back.
“Charles has been a stud in this league for 15 years, so whenever he’s on the field with us, he’s always a huge threat,” Hawk said after practice Tuesday evening. “Not only is he a threat to make huge plays throughout the game, but quarterbacks, I think they know where he’s at every single play. He seems to know what receivers are running before they do. And I think he has an intimidation factor as well.
“Every team we play has to respect him.”
Woodson missed both of the Packers’ games against the Vikings this season, when Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson ran for 210 yards in a 23-14 Packers victory on Dec. 2, and when Peterson rushed for 199 yards in the Vikings’ 37-34 triumph last Sunday at the Metrodome.
“I just think having Charles Woodson back on the field helps our football team,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in announcing that Woodson had been cleared. “I mean, just what he’s meant to our defense, his play-making ability, his ability to make plays at the line of scrimmage. He’s extremely productive, so I’m just glad to have him back on the field.”
Woodson was not in the Packers locker room during the media access period Tuesday evening. But when he last spoke at length with reporters, on Dec. 21, he acknowledged that he hasn’t always agreed with McKenzie or McCarthy’s recommendations. But, if waiting allows him to make it through an entire playoff run – right through Super Bowl XLVII – without reinjuring his collarbone, he will be grateful, he said.
“This team has throughout this season found ways to win and we’ve found ourselves in the playoffs. I’m just thankful that when I do come back, I’ll have a chance to play in the playoffs,” Woodson said. “If it so happens that (waiting) was able to give me a couple more weeks to heal and get completely healed so I can go out there play through a full playoffs, then yeah, I’ll thank him. No problem there.”
Before his injury at St. Louis, Woodson was playing strong safety in the Packers’ base defense, then playing the nickel and dime slot positions in sub packages. After he went down, second-year safety M.D. Jennings was his primary replacement at safety in the base defense, while rookies Casey Hayward (nickel) and Jerron McMillian (dime) covered opposing slot receivers.
It’s unclear where Woodson will line up against the Vikings on Saturday night, but his defensive teammates believe he’ll help both against Peterson and against Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns (120.2 rating) on Sunday.
“(Woodson) helps us in every aspect of the game, just his experience,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “No doubt about it, obviously he’s a great player from the start, but with that experience, we know he’s going to be in the position he’s supposed to be in, we know he’s going to be looking to make a play. You can be aggressive yourself because you know you have a guy back there you can trust.”
Williams said Woodson also makes a difference because, while some of the team’s young players have done well in his absence, his knowledge of the game allows him to do things that younger players aren’t able to do, aren’t comfortable doing or can’t do as well as he does them.
“This defense is based off disguising and things like that, so Charles has been so experienced so he knows how long to hold a disguise, and he’s not scared to do it,” Williams said. “It’s definitely going to help us in the long run.”
Against Peterson, Woodson gives the Packers another physical player who can come down into the box and defend the run. While both times Woodson broke his collarbone – he did it during Super Bowl XLV, too – he did it by hitting the ground, he admitted on Dec. 21 that he might have some initial reservations about tackling … until game time.
“Probably before the game (I’ll be worried), but I think when you get into the game, I think all of those thoughts kind of flee your mind and you get ready to play the game,” Woodson said of contact. “I’ll think about it for sure before I get out there on the field, but once I get out there on the field, then it’s time to play football.”
And for the Packers, that’ll be good news.
“It means a lot. That’s one of the leaders on our team,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Charles Woodson is a playmaker and he’s going to bring energy out there. Just seeing him moving around, excited in the weight room, that makes you excited as a player to go on the field of battle with him.
“Any help we can get, we’ve got a full team and we can roll. Just getting ‘Wood’ back is a major plus. Just seeing him move around, he’s excited, he’s ready to go, so that gets you excited. Just having your whole team prepared and ready to roll, that’s the fun part about it.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.