Last Sunday afternoon, we saw just how important Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are to the Packers' defense, and what their play means to the way Charles Woodson is able to line up.
It's no secret that the Packers rely on a nickel defense (two linemen, four linebackers, five defensive backs) more than any other team. With Williams and Shields locking down opposing receivers on the outside, Woodson is free to play the slot in a sort of cornerback-safety hybrid role. He can blitz, play the run or cover the slot receiver with equal ease. (Incidentally, this makes Sam Shields a de facto starting corner. Disregard his "nickel back" tag.) But when Williams is out, as he was against the Carolina Panthers, Woodson is forced to revert to his old spot outside the numbers and Jarrett Bush takes the nickel.
Five years ago, Woodson would have no problem doing this. He was the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year because he was able to play all over the field. But at 34, Woodson's play has declined to the point where he's no longer an effective cover corner playing on the outside.
Yes, he had two interceptions. Yes, he recovered a fumble. But Woodson was victimized by Steve Smith (six catches, 156 yards), including on a 62-yard bomb from Cam Newton that facilitated a late Panthers touchdown. The former DPOY was beaten on Smith's catch-and-run that ended in a fumble, and was lost in space before recovering to make his first interception. He's still capable of making big plays, and make no mistake, those two interceptions were huge for Green Bay. But you just can't let the other guy's No. 1 wideout gain 156 yards.
Ultimately, when Williams returns, Woodson will move back inside and the issue will be moot. But if Williams or Shields goes down again during the season, coordinator Dom Capers will have to think seriously about whether it's wise to have Woodson shadow the opposition's best receiver all game long. The result could be another spectacular day from a player like Smith, and maybe a Packers loss.