Just when it appeared that the Green Bay Packers had righted the ship and were set to go on a run that would put them right back into the thick of things in the NFC North, the team has suffered yet another significant injury that has left them scrambling to fill a hole on defense.
As Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel reports, 15th-year veteran Charles Woodson, who made the move from cornerback to strong safety before the 2012 season, is expected to miss at least six weeks after suffering a broken collarbone near the end of the Packers' win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
The injury is devastating to a defense that has already lost inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith to season-ending injuries and was without defensive tackle B.J. Raji, cornerback Sam Shields and linebacker Nick Perry for the game against the Rams.
Granted, a player of Woodson's caliber (even one in the twilight of his career) can't just be replaced, but the Packers have a history of weathering the injury storm better than many other NFL clubs.
If they're going to do that in this instance, here are three players who will have to step up their games.
A lot of what happens with the Packers defensively could well depend on what the team decides to do with safety Morgan Burnett. The third-year pro has experience at strong safety, having played the position in both college and with the Packers.
Regardless of what position he plays moving forward, Burnett is now the leader of the back end of Green Bay's defense, and it will fall to him to not only play well on the field but also help with the development of whichever youngster lines up beside him.
Jerron McMillian/M.D. Jennings
I'm including this duo as one player because, for the purposes of the Packers defense, they're going to have to combine to form one.
Both second-year pro M.D. Jennings and rookie Jerron McMillian have seen substantial playing time in the Green Bay secondary this year when Woodson moved to cornerback in certain sub-pacakages, and as safeties coach Darren Perry recently told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the rotation between the pair has simply been a matter of putting the best player on the field in a given situation.
"Just making sure we're getting the best guy out there and what we want out of that position," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "They're both young and still learning. Until one guy just kind of nails it down we'll keep rolling them in."
Jennings is the slightly more experienced player and is Woodson's backup at strong safety, so he'll probably be the first man into the fray in Woodson's stead. However, both youngsters will all but certainly see significant playing time, and the pair is going to need to "grow up" in a hurry.
As you may have gathered, it's going to be a pretty fresh-faced bunch stepping up in an effort to replace Charles Woodson, but luckily for the Packers, at least one of those players has been a very pleasant surprise in Titletown this year.
Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward has already intercepted four passes in his first NFL season, including one last week against the St. Louis Rams in his first career start, but as Hayward told Tom Silverstein of the Journal-Sentinel via the Chippewa Herald, he's ready to play wherever he's needed in the defensive formation.
“Whenever I get my opportunity, I’m going to try to take advantage of it,” Hayward said. “Whether I’m inside or outside, just try to get better every week.”
That versatility is going to be put to the test, as whether it's filling in for the injured Sam Shields outside or covering the slot in Woodson's stead in sub-packages, Hayward's playing time isn't going to decrease anytime soon.
As I said before, Woodson's experience, versatility and nose for big plays aren't the sorts of things that can be easily replaced.
However, with a deep young secondary being coached up by Woodson on the sidelines and psyched up by the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the locker room, this particular storm is one the Green Bay Packers should make it through fairly well.