Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why The Woodson Experiment Failed

Tomorrow night, the Packers will return to their normal secondary personnel: Charles Woodson and Al Harris at cornerback; and Nick Collins and [fill in the blank] at safety. According to Mike McCarthy, the Charles-Woodson-at-safety experiment is done, for now.

Most of us raised an eyebrow at the move, which surprised me when I was in attendance at the Carolina Panther game and saw #28 lining up deep instead of on the line. As time went on, we saw the experiment did little to help a secondary that has offered up 100+ passing efficiency ratings to each quarterback it has faced the past three games, and repeatedly given up late plays in the fourth quarter that have put the Packers in a bad spot.

Sometimes, Woodson has been the guilty party on those plays. So, it has been decided to start Rouse at safety and put Woodson back at the position he earned a Pro Bowl berth for.

For one, I will give McCarthy some credit for making the move. He recognized that the trio of Atari Bigby, Aaron Rouse, and Charlie Peprah simply weren't able to compliment Nick Collins at safety and tinkered with the scheme to see if it would make a difference. This is closer to the problem-solving Mike McCarthy I remember from the past two seasons, but as it turns out, it didn't make the team better. In fact, the secondary may have been more of a liability than it was before the switch.

There are several reasons why I think the experiment failed, and I will list my favorites:

1) The move was made mid-season. I don't know if there's a problem with the idea of moving one of our corners to safety, but doing it in the middle of the season with a player who has played his long career at cornerback didn't have a high percentage of success.

I proposed last April
that moving Al Harris to safery would be a good idea, especially given that we had doubts about his ability to play corner following his embarrassment in the NFC Championship game. However, both Harris has continued to play at a high level this season, and I certainly wouldn't have proposed doing it on the fly.

Woodson and the rest of the defense might be able to make this switch work, but they would need more than a week of practice to figure it out. This is the kind of move you make and implement in training camp, not in Week 12.

2) The gain at safety is negligible compared to the drop-off at corner. I think that Woodson may do a decent job at safety, and might even be a better option than the injured Bigby and the struggling Rouse. And, Tramon Williams certainly impressed us filling in for Harris earlier in the year.

But the small improvement we have with Woodson playing in place of true safeties doesn't make up for not having his services at cornerback. It's a small gain balanced with a big drop, and makes the entire squad less effective. Not a cut on Williams, who I think will grow into a decent corner, but he's not anything equal to Charles Woodson right now.

And, Woodson might be a decent safety, but needs more time to work at the position and within the scheme in order to maximize his play at the position.

3) The "getting our four best guys on the field" theory doesn't work. This is my opinion, but just getting the best athletes on the field doesn't really work in a specialized sport like football. This all depends if you buy into the concept that different positions invite a different prototypical player with a skill set that compliments it.

In basketball, you can try and get your best five athletes on the court, but if they all happen to be point guards, you better dramatically redesign your scheme from a traditional approach to something that allows short, fast passers to succeed against tall, powerful shooters. And, um, it usually doesn't work.

The same argument can be applied to the Packers' offensive line. There's always been discussion of trying to find the five best athletes to play along the line, but each position along the line invites different skill sets. One could argue that the zone blocking scheme, when run exclusively, might diminish the specialization of skills: all five need to block one direction, with the extra guy laying down a cut block.

But the Packers don't run the ZBS exclusively, and that opens up the need for specialization. The center not only has to have skills to deliver a clean snap to the quarterback, but be able to block stoutly against the defense's biggest players. In pass defense, centers have to be stout and maintain the base of the pocket. Guards have to also be stout, as inside runs will depend on them, but guards also have to have the athleticism to pull on sweeps and hit blocks on the open field. Tackles perhaps need the most flexibility, able to push their blocks to the inside or outside on run plays, and be able to move into the backfield and protect the pocket against the best pass rushers.

All these are different skills sets in a traditional scheme. I don't know if Scott Wells and Chad Clifton can switch spots without a bit of a drop-off at both positions.

The same can be said for the secondary. While the Packers run both corner positions with a tough man approach, the safeties have a different view of the game, different responsibilities, and a different skill set that is needed. It's not to say that Woodson isn't a consummate athlete and can't do it, but going from cornerback to strong safety is about the same as going from center to tackle.

4) More specifically, the strong safety skill set is typically different from the free safety skill set. A strong safety in a traditional defensive approach is the closer-to-the-line, hard-hitting safety who is often visible in run support as well as the pass defense. Think LeRoy Butler.

The free safety is the over-the-top coverage guy, the man who calls out coverage changes from the backfield, and the one who has to make the proper angles on the passing plays happening in front of him. Think Eugene Robinson.

The Packers, since Ted Thompson has begun assembling personnel and Bob Sanders has taken over as defensive coordinator, have approached the safety positions as interchangeable positions, with both safeties taking on those responsiblities. I have always stated this is a mistake, especially since most of the players brought in since 2005 fit the "strong safety" skill set. Mark Roman, Nick Collins, Atari Bigby, and Aaron Rouse are all players who are strong in run support, hard hitters, but have all struggled in coverage and made glaring mistakes.

Moving Woodson back into the strong safety position asks him to be the run support (and many of his great plays over the last few weeks have been in stuffing the run or the short pass), when his strengths might be better served in the passing game and allowing him to be in a position to make big plays. What makes it a little more head-scratching is why, when you have so many strong safeties on the roster, you would move Woodson to that position?

How might have worked better?

Well, number one, if you're going to make a move like this, make the move in training camp.

Number two, moving Collins, a strong safety who is finally developing some decent coverage skills, to his natural position (an instant upgrade over Bigby and Rouse) and Woodson to the ball-hawking, quarterback of the defense free safety spot, would conceivably improve the play at that position, too.

Now, the two gains made at the safety position might actually outweigh (and compensate for) the drop at corner with Tramon Williams. In fact, if Woodson were to actually be able to play a Eugene Robinson-esque FS, it would actually make Williams' job easier because of the support he could offer. His experience in recognizing formations and tendancies combined with his ability in coverage would make it easier on both corners, and also allow Collins to accentuate his strengths in run support.

The continued discussion might be if it still wiser to keep Woodson at corner and instead move Al Harris to FS instead, since Woodson might be able to continue to play at a high level despite the passage of time.

Of course, the best option would be to get a solid and prototypical free safety this offseason in the draft or through free agency, and keep our two starting corners where they should be, and keeping Tramon Williams at nickel back, preparing for his future as an eventual starter.

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