House, Hayward ready to step up
The current scenario facing the Green Bay Packers' defense would send shivers down the spine of most NFL defensive coordinators.
Not Dom Capers.
Unquestionably, the secondary would like to have Sam Shields and Tramon Williams healthy and active for Sunday's game against Carolina, but its backup situation is a lot more stable with Davon House and Casey Hayward than that of most other teams.
"That's one of the reasons you have depth and guys you have confidence in, because things can change within a matter of a play or two," Capers said.
They did in Sunday's 27-24 comeback victory over the Miami Dolphins when Shields (knee) and Williams (ankle) exited in the third quarter within two plays of each other and didn't return.
After neither practiced Wednesday, coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Williams is closer to a return than Shields before adding that both veterans will be given every opportunity to play.
If they don't, the Packers' fifth-ranked pass defense will look to House and Hayward. The cornerbacks are close to even in snaps this season (House 176, Hayward 150), while rotating in the nickel package.
They're different players. House (6-feet-1) classifies himself as a shutdown corner on the perimeter. He may not possess Shields' deep ball-hawking ability, but his strong punch at the line of scrimmage can send a receiver off route.
Hayward (5-11, 192) feels he can play inside or outside, but he's made a name for himself in the slot. His six interceptions nearly earned him defensive rookie of the year honors in 2012.
With 58 NFL games between them, there's confidence House and Hayward can get the job done.
"A lot of other teams, if two of their starting cornerbacks go down, they're starting to panic," House said. "Here, there's no panicking if Tramon or Sam don't go. It seems like nothing is going to change."
The defense fell into a lull after Williams and Shields left the field Sunday, but it was difficult to find fault with House's or Hayward's performance in the game. According to Pro Football Focus, the two allowed only one catch on five targets, one of which was a Hayward interception.
House pitched a shutout outside of his 21-yard pass interference penalty on receiver Mike Wallace in the third quarter, though Capers, House and the rest of the staff felt it was a questionable call.
Meanwhile, the interception was vintage Hayward, who baited quarterback Ryan Tannehill into throwing in his direction. It's always been Hayward's contention that if you throw five or six balls his way, he'll make a play on at least one of them.
Hayward admits he needed that one. It was his first regular-season interception since the 2012 finale after a recurring hamstring injury limited his second season to three games.
Hayward's return to health and House's rise up the depth chart has helped the secondary pull down eight interceptions, second-most in the NFL. The Packers finished last season with 11.
House believes the Darrelle Revis-led New England Patriots might be able to challenge the Packers' depth at the position. Statistically, few units have been better at taking the ball away than Green Bay since Capers took over the defense in 2009.
"I think we have the guys to get interceptions," Hayward said. "We have four corners who have interceptions now. I'm not sure if there is any other team that has that right now. That's our goal, to get interceptions, to get turnovers. I'm not saying we're better than any other secondary, but that's our goal."
As far as contingencies, House and Hayward would move into the starting lineup if Williams and Shields can't go Sunday, with veteran Jarrett Bush or second-year defensive back Micah Hyde moving into the slot of the nickel package.
If one of the two veterans can play, House likely would start in the base 3-4 defense with Hayward assuming a larger role in the subpackages like he did as a rookie when Charles Woodson missed nine games with a broken collarbone.
"I think it'll be like regular," Hayward said. "Me and House and JB and all the other guys, we'll take care of things we have to take care of. We're going in preparing like we're going to be starting. I think it'll be pretty much the same out there. Dom's going to call the game just like he's been calling it."
Regardless of who's on the field, the Packers will have their hands full with quarterback Cam Newton, who is as deadly with his legs as he is his arm. He showed that in 2011 when he torched the Packers' defense for 485 total yards.
It just so happens that game was the only game Williams (shoulder) has missed in his career. Three years later, House believes, Newton has developed a "top five" arm in the league. It was his theatrics off the read-option that helped elevate the Panthers to their first playoff appearance in five years last season.
Carolina lacks a Pro Bowl receiver without Steve Smith, but 6-foot-5, 240-pound rookie Kelvin Benjamin has been taking the league by storm. Six-foot-5 tight end Greg Olsen also presents a big threat in the middle of the field.
"There are some times Cam will force the ball, but I believe Cam is special," House said. "Plenty more Pro Bowls to go for him. He's going to be a great player."
House and Hayward say they'll be ready if called upon in a full-time capacity against the Panthers.
Both have plenty to play for. House will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Hayward wants to show his hamstring issues are behind him and his rookie season was no fluke.
There's also the unit's pride. Since the Packers drafted Hayward, players and coaches alike have lauded the depth at the position.
That claim could be put to a big test Sunday.
"We feel like we're the strength of the defense," Hayward said. "That's how we should feel and that's how we are. From the safety, we're deep. From the corner, we're deep. You want to get your best guys out there any opportunity you can, and I feel they've been doing a good job of that."
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