First-team reps nothing new to House, Hayward

Weston Hodkiewicz
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The Green Bay Packers' cornerback depth chart tells only half the story.

Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward catches the ball in front of cornerback Sam Shields during OTA practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Tuesday, June 3, 2014.

A quick glance would indicate Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are the starters in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. Davon House and Casey Hayward nothing more than reserves at the two spots.

What it doesn't show is how evenly practice reps have been divvied up for the last three months.

When cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt told reporters this offseason House and Hayward would get a fair shot at usurping Williams and Shields for starting jobs in camp, that wasn't just a throwaway line. The point was to push the four cornerbacks, while rotating the two youngsters in as starters during practice.

The defense might be relying on that seasoning this Sunday if neither Williams (ankle) nor Shields (knee) is able to play against the Carolina Panthers. Both cornerbacks sat out of Thursday's practice with House and Hayward continuing to work with the starters.

"I think it was the plan for us," Whitt said. "Not necessarily for two guys to get hurt, but I was preparing and honestly any combination of the two actually starting. I wasn't sitting here BSing you all when I was saying it. I was actually giving Casey and House the opportunity to beat Sam and Tramon out. If I'm going to actually do that, the division of labor had to be even. That's why they've gotten even reps.

"I want to make sure that the room is ready to play, not individuals. I think we've done that thus far. Hopefully, we can continue to do that."

The Packers are currently fifth in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 213.5 yards per game. One reason Whitt believes the secondary has jumped from being last year's 24th-ranked unit is the knowledge of the players in the room.

Hayward, Williams, veteran Jarrett Bush and second-year defensive back Micah Hyde know how to play every cornerback position. Bush and Hyde even know safety. That foundation creates a greater awareness of where the stress points are going to be in the secondary.

It's led to an early reduction in explosive plays allowed and an increase in interceptions. The Packers are second in the NFL in interceptions (nine) and third in pass deflections (42).

There's still work to be done, though. Once Shields and Williams exited, they gave up five plays of more than 20 yards in the second half against the Dolphins. All of them contributed to drives that ended in touchdowns.

Shields and Williams have played a large role in the successes, but House and Hayward aren't slouches. They've played in a combined 58 NFL games and have two interceptions in half as many snaps as Williams and Shields.

"I feel good about our depth," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You never have enough quality DBs. You just don't. You heard us talk all the time you just have to be prepared when your opportunity presents itself to take advantage of it. I think that's the case with both Davon and Casey, they're looking forward to their opportunity to go out and proving what they can do."

House has worked exclusively on the perimeter, so getting a start in place of either Williams or Shields would be nothing new. Hayward has mostly worked in the slot for the Packers, but there's confidence he can hold his own outside.

Whitt said the 5-foot-11, 192-pound cornerback has the lowest completion percentage of any of his cornerbacks, which is saying something since the group ranks in the top five of the category over the past five seasons.

It still will be hard to replace either Williams or Shields, who was piecing together his best game of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, he'd allowed a catch for 1 yard with an interception of Ryan Tannehill before developing pinch in his knee with 3:44 left in the third quarter.

"Not only the interception, but he was covering at a high level," Whitt said. "They couldn't get off of him. I was actually surprised to be honest with you that he wasn't giving up any separation.

"He was just playing really good. He was probably playing his best game of the year before he got hurt."

If Williams and Shields can't go, Bush and Hyde are the most likely options to slide into the slot in the nickel subpackage, a role Hayward and Williams have split time at this season.

Regardless of who plays, the Packers' cornerbacks have confidence in their position group.

"We have no doubt," Hyde said. "We had no doubt last week we were going to win the game. Seeing Casey and JB and House out there, we can get the job done, also." and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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