They are – relatively speaking – the old men around here. On the coaching staff, it’s 62-year-defensive coordinator Dom Capers. In the locker room, it’s soon-to-be 36-year-old cornerback-turned-safety Charles Woodson and soon-to-be 33-year-old defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, both of whom will celebrate birthdays in early October.
And yet, two games into what is their combined 54th NFL season, the three have found something of a fountain of youth on the defensive side of the ball, thanks to the Green Bay Packers’ rookie class.
“I mean, the spark and the energy they bring, it’s what was missing, what we needed last year,” Pickett said Tuesday, as the Packers returned to practice after a quasi-bye weekend following last Thursday’s victory over the Chicago Bears. “(The organization) did a good job of bringing in some talented guys to come and fill in. They’ve given us a big boost.
“It’s contagious. You see a young guy get in there and make a play, you’re excited for him, you know it brings excitement to the whole team, everybody. It’s great.”
And theoretically, it’s only going to get better, even though there could be bumps and growing pains along the way.
“The only way an old guy is going to know if a new guy can play is if he plays,” Woodson said as the team began its preparations for Monday night’s game at Seattle. “I don’t want to have to be long retired before I see the guys who just came in play well after I’m gone. It’s all about the experience of getting those guys on the field.”
Against the Bears, six rookies chipped in on defense: First-round pick Nick Perry and undrafted free agent Dezman Moses were part of a three-man rotation with veteran Erik Walden at left outside linebacker; second-round pick Jerel Worthy and fourth-round pick Mike Daniels each registered his first NFL sack as part of the defensive line rotation; fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian was the nickel/dime safety when Woodson would shift in sub packages and had his first NFL interception; and second-round pick Casey Hayward was the dime cornerback.
“For those guys to get in, against a rival, Thursday night game, coming off a short week, that’s huge,” Woodson said. “That’s huge experience for them.”
According to the NFL’s official participation statistics, McMillian played 44 of a possible 63 snaps against the Bears (70 percent) while Worthy played 37 (59 percent), Hayward played 24 (38 percent), Perry played 20 (32 percent), Moses played 19 (30 percent) and Daniels played 14 (24 percent). The team’s other two rookies on the 53-man roster on defense were inactive: inside linebacker Terrell Manning, who played on special teams in the opener but sat out with a concussion, and undrafted rookie safety Sean Richardson.
You know that old saying about the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores? Capers can’t wait to see where his young guys are in their respective developments by season’s end, given that they’re playing and contributing now.
“I just think that’s where we are,” Capers said of so many rookies seeing action. “The one thing I feel good about stating is I think we will get better. As long as we stay healthy, and we can keep these young guys coming along, we’ll get better as a defense just because of game experience.
“When you take young guys and if you feel they have good ability, what they have to do is they have to gain that experience and start to play with more confidence. (Then) you start to see them making more plays maybe they weren’t making when you started out.”
Each player contributed in some way to an impressive defensive performance in which the Packers sacked quarterback Jay Cutler seven times, intercepted him four times and held the Bears to just 168 net yards of offense – the fewest the unit has allowed since giving up just 139 yards to the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 25, 2009. The fewest yards the defense – an outfit that finished the year dead last in yards allowed in the 32-team NFL, at 411.6 yards per game – allowed last season in a single game: 251, to the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 9.
“This class, we just kind of believe in ourselves and the skill set we bring to the team,” Worthy said. “I think it showed out there on Thursday, when a lot of the young players were getting out there and getting into our groove a little bit. Really, the more we can get into a groove, the more impact we can have on this team.”
The previous week, when the Packers ceded 377 yards to the San Francisco 49ers in a 30-22 loss, veteran Jarrett Bush started at cornerback, second-year man M.D. Jennings was the nickel/dime safety until he was benched in favor of McMillian in the second half and Daniels was inactive. Neither Bush nor Jennings played a single snap of defense against the Bears.
Before the season, both general manager Ted Thompson in his comments to shareholders and coach Mike McCarthy in various interviews had said that the Packers’ fate would be decided by their veterans. And while that’s certainly the case – Woodson, pass-rushing star Clay Matthews, shutdown corner Tramon Williams, Pickett and others are certainly vital to the defense’s improvement – the youngsters will have a say, too.
“We talk about winning and growing. And just based on the fact that our younger players are playing in Week 2 gives us that opportunity (to grow),” McCarthy said. “I'm excited about where this team has a chance to go, but the reality, the focus, is one week at a time. We've been guaranteed 14 opportunities, and that's really all we're focused on. We made a significant jump in four days from Game 1 to Game 2, and that's something that we need to hold onto and learn from.”
McCarthy went so far as to say that the youth movement has made choosing the 46 players to keep active on game day “as challenging as it's been” during his seven-year run as coach. But Woodson, being the wise old man that he is, cautioned against getting too excited about the young’uns too soon.
“I thought they played well. I think with any game, though, there’s things to be corrected. But that’s everybody. For the young guys to come in and play well – they didn’t do anything that the veterans didn’t do (wrong),” Woodson said.
“The standpoint I look at it from is, as a team we played better. Forget about what year guys are in. It’s just about the team. The team played well. But still, we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves about what we did. It was a good game, but we’re going against a team that’s vastly improved as well this Monday. These guys have been getting invaluable experience early on. Hopefully it translates later on in the season.”