There really wasn’t much doubt about Charles Woodson’s irreplaceable role with the Green Bay Packers, but in case they needed reminding, the Packers on Saturday night got an unsavory look at life without the NFL’s reigning defensive player of the year.
Woodson didn’t travel to play the Seattle Seahawks because coach Mike McCarthy wanted to save the 33-year-old cornerback from playing on Qwest Field’s artificial surface, especially with a quick turnaround for a Thursday preseason game at Lambeau Field.
Any evaluation of the Packers’ defense playing without Woodson in Saturday night's 27-24 victory over Seattle also must acknowledge two important points. It was a preseason game that featured relatively minimal defensive game planning, and the Packers’ defense was missing two other key starters, outside linebacker Clay Matthews and inside linebacker Nick Barnett, as well as several other possible starters.
Still, leading a Seattle offense that’s hardly overloaded with talent and is learning a new system, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck found enough holes in coordinator Dom Capers’ pass defense to lead two touchdown drives in four possessions against the Packers’ starters.
“You have to have playmakers,” Capers said of how badly the Packers need Woodson. “I’ve always felt this way, that to be a good defense, a good defense in this league, you’ve got to have two or three playmakers that can make plays that change the course of a game. And then you have to have an awful lot of good role players, and we’re going through that process right now to figure out who’s going to be our best role players, and who’s going to be our best playmakers.”
With Woodson out and Al Harris still recovering from knee reconstruction surgery, Capers and McCarthy got an extended look at backup cornerbacks Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee against another team’s starters. In training camp, the two young cornerbacks have shown promise for holding up in prominent roles if and when they’re needed this season. But with both on the field along with starting cornerback Tramon Williams, the Packers still were too vulnerable for comfort in the secondary Saturday night.
The Packers also played without one other sure starting linebacker, A.J. Hawk (ankle), plus possible starters in linebacker Brad Jones (shoulder) and safety Atari Bigby (ankle).
Taking into account the personnel shortage, the 34-year-old Hasselbeck’s passer rating of 120.7 points (11-for-15 passing for 127 yards and one touchdown) might not be much of a surprise. But what’s most noteworthy is Hasselbeck went after the young cornerbacks, like Cleveland’s Jake Delhomme did last week.
On the Seahawks’ first touchdown drive, Hasselbeck threw back-to-back completions for 31 yards total against Underwood, who didn’t get deep enough on a zone drop to challenge receiver Mike Williams before giving too much cushion to receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. On the Seahawks’ second touchdown drive, Houshmandzadeh kept the drive alive on a third-and-4 by beating Underwood on a quick slant for a six-yard gain.
“I’ve got to be more consistent,” Underwood said. “I’ve got to go out and make sure I stay focused and do it every play; every play get in and do what I’ve got to do. We made an adjustment for the corners at halftime, to get up there when we’re in our man coverage, just to get up there and play press (coverage), and I honestly feel that it turned out a lot better for us to get out and play everything with no errors.”
Lee wasn’t thrown at as much and had solid coverage on a third-down incompletion to receiver Deion Branch that ended the Seahawks’ first possession. But on the second-quarter touchdown drive, Lee had a five-yard penalty for illegal contact, and several plays later gave up a 21-yard completion to Houshmandzadeh on a crossing route. Lee also bit too hard on a bootleg by Hasselbeck on which the quarterback ran free and hit Williams for a 13-yard gain that set up the touchdown.
The Packers don’t know right now whether Underwood or Lee will play significant roles early in the regular season, but it’s a decent possibility, depending on Harris’ comeback. Even if Harris returns from the physically unable to perform list this week, he still might not be ready to play in the opener at Philadelphia, and any later than this week makes it almost a given he won’t play in that game. If he’s not ready to go, Underwood or Lee will be the No. 3 cornerback, which means he will play half the game or more. Depending on whether Harris has any setbacks, it could be for more than one game.
Unlike last preseason, when Capers blitzed extensively while teaching his 3-4 scheme to his new defensive players, he’s played more conservatively in the first two preseason games this year. Capers wants more of a pure evaluation of players this year, so he blitzed sparingly and never sent more than five rushers at Hasselbeck.
“We had some guys that got a lot of snaps,” Capers said. “We didn’t play the pass as well early in the game as I would like to have. So we’re going to have to take a look at it. There were some things that I think, again, were real correctable. We’ve got some guys playing new positions, and they just haven’t — we’ve kept pretty constant on our (simplified play-calling) ready list. We haven’t done a lot of additions, because we’ve got to find out if these guys can play the base fundamental aspects of the football.”
One area where the Packers’ starting defense has performed well is stopping the run. After finishing last season with the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, the Packers in the first half of games against Cleveland and Seattle have allowed 80 yards rushing on 22 carries (3.6-yard average), and that includes mixing in some deeper backups in the second quarters of both games.