Hayward making most of corner rotation

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward returns a fumble for a 49-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter during Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field.

Nearly every year at every level, Casey Hayward has lived within reach of the football.

During his days at Perry (Ga.) High School, Hayward returned three of his four interceptions for touchdowns. He tied a school record at Vanderbilt with another 15 and grabbed six more during his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers.

The third-year cornerback can't remember a season during which he wasn't getting his hands on a turnover.

Well, almost. There is one exception.

"Maybe last year?" Hayward said.

Hayward was hit with a hard dose of reality in 2013. There would be no encore to his standout rookie season after a hamstring injury suffered a week before training camp refused to relent.

He attempted two comebacks before the Packers placed him on season-ending injured reserve. His season was over after just three games.

There have been a few flare-ups here and there, but health has been on Hayward's side this season. Taking a moment to knock on the frame of his locker, he hopes things stay that way.

A return to health has aided him in a return to form. Although snaps aren't as plentiful as in his rookie year, Hayward continues to make plays. He has three interceptions in the last five games, including an 82-yard return for a touchdown in a 55-14 win over Chicago two weeks ago.

He followed up that performance with a 49-yard fumble return for a touchdown in Sunday's 53-20 win over Philadelphia. It had been 15 years since a defensive player scored a touchdown in back-to-back games.

Just don't tell Hayward's mom, Tish, that. She called this one.

"My mom was just telling me like two weeks ago, I see you getting an interception this week for a touchdown and then it happened," said Hayward, laughing. "Then, she just told me I was going to score again, but she said it was going to be an interception."

What's made Hayward's production impressive is it's come in fewer snaps than his rookie season. After Charles Woodson went down with a broken collarbone midway through the 2012 season, the Packers desperately needed someone to fill the void.

Green Bay turned to Hayward and doused him in opportunity. According to Pro Football Focus, he played the sixth-most snaps from the slot (338) in the league despite his late start. His six interceptions led a defense that tied for eighth in the NFL (18).

After playing 683 (62.8 percent) of the defensive snaps as rookie, Hayward saw only 87 in his abbreviated sophomore season.

The Packers finished with only 11 interceptions, though the defense felt there were more forces at play than the absence of one player. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt tosses a reminder that it takes two to throw an interception.

Still, the loss of Hayward didn't help. Few young cornerbacks hit the ground running faster than Hayward, who falls into an elite category in Whitt's eyes.

"I call him a ball magnet because the ball finds certain guys," Whitt said. "Charles Woodson was one that was here. Ed Reed was a guy that the ball just finds. Asante Samuel, the ball just finds him. The ball finds Casey, and he has the ability of catching it. You try to get as many of those type guys on the field."

There were positives after Hayward's departure. Williams regained form, Sam Shields stepped up, and Micah Hyde and Davon House emerged. Hayward's return gave the Packers perhaps their deepest secondary in Mike McCarthy's nine-year tenure.

So far, it's lived up to billing. The Packers are tied for third in the NFL with 14 interceptions and 13th in passing defense (238.2 yards). The defense also ranks sixth in one of coordinator Dom Capers' most coveted statistics: opponent passer rating (80.2).

Hayward has averaged about 14 fewer snaps per game this year than his rookie season and split slot duties down the middle with Hyde, but he understands the landscape.

Cornerbacks have had the good fortune of health, which means there are fewer reps to go around. The key has been when he gets a chance, he capitalizes on it, whether it's deflecting a pass or coming on a corner blitz.

As great as the interceptions are, Hayward isn't allowing any completions, either. According to Pro Football Focus, Hayward leads NFL cornerbacks with more than 100 slot snaps with 18 coverage snaps per reception.

"I think my role — it's been up and down, but whenever my number is called, I'm making plays," Hayward said. "I continue to do that week in and week out. It's still a long season. We still have plenty of games left. It would be different if I wasn't playing, but I'm still getting my opportunities to play. They know what kind of player I am. Each and every week, I'm doing something to stick out."

There was one other moment Hayward will remember from Sunday's win over the Eagles outside of his fumble recovery. It occurred early in the second quarter with the Eagles driving.

Viewers at home saw Hayward and Clay Matthews overload the weak side, resulting in a 10-yard sack for Matthews on third-and-2 from the Packers' 5. What they didn't know is Hayward lined up on the wrong side of the line.

"He looked at me like, 'What are doing over here?'" said Hayward, laughing. "He still went and made the play. If he didn't make the play, he probably would've been mad at me."

Hayward had another shot at his first career sack in the fourth quarter. Only Sanchez didn't have the ball. Instinctively, Hayward pushed him aside and ran the fumble in for the 49-yard score.

If there's been one positive to the lighter workload, it's allowed Hayward to regain his comfort after a lost season. The changes the Packers have made to their offseason and inseason schedules also have made a difference.

Along with adding former Oregon nutritionist Adam Korzun, McCarthy redesigned the team's practice schedule, boosted regeneration periods and started dedicating more attention to detail with hydration.

The schedule is also flexible enough to allow a player to select some of his treatment. Hayward likes massages, contrast therapy (alternating applications of heat and cold) and pilates. Independently, he also used dry-needling acupuncturists on his road to recovery.

The fear with tearing the hamstring muscle is the propensity for it to happen again. From what his teammates have seen, it looks like the same old Casey on Sundays.

"It's amazing just to see some of the things he does," Williams said. "The way the ball finds him. It's amazing to see that. Some guys just have that knack. That's one of his knacks. He finds the ball and the ball is going to find him."

Hayward is staying patient in his role. When he steps on the field, history indicates the ball is soon to follow.

Just in case, Hayward said he'll be calling his mom before Sunday's game against Minnesota for a little extra luck.

"I find the ball, I feel like. The ball don't find me," Hayward said. "I go out there and make the plays. Hopefully, I can continue to do it each and every week or whenever my number is called."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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