The Green Bay Packers will either have to play more base defense than normal or rely heavily on fifth-round rookie Micah Hyde to help cover the loss of cornerback Casey Hayward against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 Sunday.
According to Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy ruled Hayward out for the season opener in San Francisco because of an ongoing hamstring injury. The problem has nagged the second-year cornerback for nearly all of training camp, and he hasn't practiced since reinjuring the hamstring against the Seattle Seahawks on Aug. 23.
While Hayward is the only member of the Packers active roster who didn't practice Wednesday, his absence will create a hole at slot cornerback.
As a rookie in 2012, Hayward intercepted a team-high six passes and finished the season with the lowest passer rating against (31.1) of any cornerback who played more than 25 percent of his team's defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He also didn't allow a touchdown pass over 703 snaps and 74 targeted passes or commit a defensive penalty.
However, the Packers have options to navigate around his loss.
For starters, Green Bay's defense is likely to play even more base and heavy packages against the powerful and scheme-versatile 49ers.
Last January in San Francisco, the Packers lined up in the nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six) on only 40 percent of their defensive snaps, per Bryan Hall of Pro Football Focus. In contrast, Green Bay finished the 2012 regular season ranked first in the NFL in nickel and dime usage at nearly 67 percent, via Kevin Seifert of ESPN.
Hayward played just 32 of a possible 80 defensive snaps in the playoff loss, according to PFF (subscription required).
Even before Hayward's injury, the reality of facing the 49ers in Week 1 was going to force the Packers out of their more customary look with an extra defensive back.
Green Bay's surprising depth on the defensive line only reinforces the likelihood that the Packers line up more frequently with three down linemen.
This past April, the team drafted versatile defensive end Datone Jones in the first round and athletic 310-pounder Josh Boyd in the fifth. The Packers also welcomed back Johnny Jolly, who won a roster spot in August by displaying many of the same play-making qualities he possessed before his three-year absence from the NFL. B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Mike Neal (hybrid lineman/linebacker) and Mike Daniels round out the group.
Green Bay will now carry eight defensive linemen into San Francisco, giving coordinator Dom Capers even greater depth and versatility to combat the 49ers up front.
The 49ers' offensive personnel should also play a role in the Packers' defensive game plan.
San Francisco will be without both Michael Crabtree (Achilles) and Mario Manningham (knee), leaving receiver duties behind Anquan Boldin to Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore. Boldin remains a tough, savvy veteran, but Williams and Moore have just 47 combined catches over three NFL seasons, and Patton is a fourth-round rookie.
Instead of going the inexperienced route with an overload on three-receiver sets, the 49ers will likely lean on the power-running game and tight end Vernon Davis to pick up the slack. San Francisco lacks a legitimate slot weapon outside Davis.
Still, in the event that the Packers do need to employ their nickel or dime defense Sunday, expect Hyde, a fifth-round pick out of Iowa, to replace Hayward inside. The rookie has been impressive throughout training camp and the preseason. He's certainly earned playing time at a position that started August as possibly the Packers' most deep and talented position.
With slot instincts, a taste for physical tackling and the ability to blitz off the edge, Hyde actually represents a player that could be useful for the Packers defense against San Francisco. He could see 15-20 snaps as the nickel corner in his NFL debut.
No defense gets better by losing a player of Hayward's caliber, but his loss can be partly mitigated by using more base looks and asking Hyde to man the inside. The Packers have options to compensate for Hayward in Week 1.