There is no good time to lose Charles Woodson. Mike McCarthy wanted to make that perfectly clear Monday, in the wake of news that the Green Bay Packers veteran defensive back had suffered a broken collarbone that will sideline him "approximately" six weeks.
Yes, Woodson is 36 years old and no longer tilts the field as much as he once did. And yes, the team's next-man-up mantra remains in effect, just as it always has under McCarthy.
But this is different.
"It's a bigger challenge. We're talking about Charles Woodson," the Packers coach said Monday afternoon. "The reality is that we fully expect and plan for the next individuals to step up and continue to play better defense. That's our goal every week, regardless of how we line up. This has been a hard couple of weeks for us. We've lost players to season-ending injuries; obviously Charles' injury is significant. But our younger players are prepared and we'll move forward and we'll have a good plan for Jacksonville."
And therein lies the difference. Had this injury happened in 2009, when Woodson was the NFL's defensive player of the year and the team didn't have young depth in the secondary, or even in 2010 or last season, the loss might have been devastating.
Instead, while Woodson's absence most certainly will be felt, the Packers have M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Casey Hayward and Davon House in the mix – and all four have seen playing time this season, with Hayward having made his first NFL start Sunday and Jennings and McMillian having job-shared at nickel/dime safety.
"Let me just say this, I'm excited about all of our players, especially our young players. We knew starting the season that we needed to get these young guys playing on defense," McCarthy said. "We needed to change some things on our defense, and one of them definitely was the opportunity for personnel. You look at the way we played last year, there's a number of players as far as the (high amount of) reps they played, so we went into the season with a very conscious effort to make sure we play these younger players as soon as we can, to play these personnel groups, to get more rotation, to gain experience for this season with the opportunity to improve.
"That was our plan from Day 1. Unfortunately, we've been suffering injuries along the way. But with that, our plan is helping us take on this challenge and these guys are playing more. But from the time the season ended, from the time OTAs (started), the plan was always to play these younger guys."
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said the plan will be for fellow starting safety Morgan Burnett to take on a more vocal role while Jennings or McMillian could get the nod as the other safety in the base defense. In nickel and dime packages, Capers said Hayward and McMillian will work the slot while Tramon Williams and Sam Shields (if healthy) or House will work outside.
"Charles is a guy that's played every game since I've been here. He's obviously an integral part of everything we do," Capers said. "But as we've talked about all year, you know on any given play you can lose any player. We've got to have guys step up there now and we've been playing different combinations.
"Morgan Burnett can play either strong or free (safety). M.D. Jennings, we thought has made progress and stepped up. And Jerron McMillian has played some there for us. We'll take a good look at it this week in practice and see how it sorts itself out. I think obviously Jerron will have to be ready to go in the sub positions, the dime positions, and then we'll see on first and second down how things go in practice this week."
After managing a 30-20 victory over the St. Louis Rams without four defensive starters Sunday, McCarthy said he got the bad news about Woodson during a staff meeting on Monday, after Woodson came in for an x-ray. It marks the second time Woodson has suffered a broken clavicle, having fractured his left collarbone in Super Bowl XLV.
McCarthy said the early indication is that Woodson's collarbone injury is "not as significant" as the one he suffered in Super Bowl XLV, but that Woodson was concerned about it after the game.
"He was a little nervous about it (Sunday) night," McCarthy said. "If you've seen the play, it was a very similar action as he experienced in the Super Bowl."
Both McCarthy and Capers said Woodson suffered the injury with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left in the game when he dove for a Sam Bradford completion to wide receiver Brandon Gibson. Woodson briefly writhed on the turf in pain before getting up, holding his right shoulder area.
Woodson stayed in the game for the ensuing fourth-down play, on which Bradford completed a pass to Steve Smith. Still in pain from the previous play, Woodson made a half-hearted attempt to tackle Smith, allowing fellow safety Morgan Burnett to secure the tackle.
"You saw him protecting his one shoulder (on the fourth-down play)," Capers said. "He kind of hit (Smith) with one shoulder and kind of walked away. So you could tell that he hurt his shoulder on that play. But I went to him in the locker room after the game and he wasn't sure. He definitely said it was when he dove to make the interception."
With the game in hand at 30-13, Woodson did not return to the field for the Rams' final possession with 1:52 to play. In their dime defense, their six defensive backs were Williams, Hayward, McMillian, Jennings, House and Burnett. McMillian and Jennings had shared the nickel and dime safety job – with Jennings getting more snaps in that role – while Woodson had been in the game.
On the final drive, the Packers lined up McMillian and Hayward on the Rams' slot receivers. Hayward had played that slot position opposite Woodson in the dime all game to that point. McMillian worked as a slot cover man during the offseason when Woodson was not participating in the organized team activity practices.
The Packers played without defensive tackle B.J. Raji (ankle), outside linebacker Nick Perry (knee), cornerback Sam Shields (shin/ankle) and inside linebacker D.J. Smith (knee) on Sunday. Smith joined preferred inside linebacker starter Desmond Bishop on season-ending injured reserve with the knee injury he suffered at Houston. Bishop was lost for the season when he ruptured his hamstring tendon in the preseason opener on Aug. 9 at San Diego.
McCarthy made it clear that the team would give Woodson, who entered Sunday's game with 38 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one interception in six games and was credited with five tackles against the Rams, every chance to return before season's end.
Asked if he thought Woodson would indeed return this season, Capers replied, "Well, just knowing Charles, all I have to go on is him in the past. He's been doing this long enough that he knows his body and he's kept himself in tremendous condition or he wouldn't be playing at his age right now and be able to play at the level he's played.
"I think that he'll do all the rehab things and we'll just have to wait and see what our medical people say in terms of how fast he will be back. He's a guy that I wouldn't put anything past him in terms of being able to come back."
The Packers cannot place Woodson on the IR – designated for return list because they already have used their one slot on running back Cedric Benson, who suffered a Lisfranc foot injury at Indianapolis on Oct. 7.
Woodson's loss will be felt both on the field and off it, as he is one of the team's emotional leaders. His inspirational pregame speeches were vital to the team's Super Bowl run in 2010.
"There'll have to be some other guys pick up the leadership role," Capers said. "Obviously, Charles is a leader. He's been a very productive guy on the field and that's the way you develop into a leader. I think there's an awful lot of respect for him. Now, we've got to have some other guys step up and produce."
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