An Instinctive Veteran, Woodson Forging Fine Season

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New York Jets receiver Justin McCareins is streaking down the far sideline with Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, back turned, in a dead sprint to keep up.

Chad Pennington's pass is lofted toward McCareins, who's waiting for the ball to drop over Woodson's shoulder and into his arms for a big gain. But at the last possible moment, Woodson turns his head, picks up the flight of the ball and hauls in a spectacular interception while crashing to the Lambeau Field turf.

A lucky grab? Far from it.

Sunday's interception by Woodson, his fifth this season, was just another example of what coaches refer to as "ball skills," or the instincts that separate defensive backs who can run and cover from those who know how to react to a ball in flight, even when they can't watch it the whole time.

"I think I've been pretty blessed in that department," Woodson says.

Few would disagree. A lot of NFL quarterbacks have made a living throwing over defensive backs who have their back to the play and never know where the ball is. But the split-second reaction and timing required to not only break up a throw like the one to McCareins but also pick it off simply can't be coached.

"Some people are just instinctive and they have a feel for the game, and he has as good a feel as anybody I've been around," Packers secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said. "He just goes, 'Hey, I'd better look. It's time to look.' It's a mechanism some people are gifted with and he has that ability."

Woodson's five interceptions this season ties his career high, set as a rookie with Oakland in 1998. The Packers' big-ticket free agent acquisition this past off-season, he also has broken up a team-best 18 passes in 2006, three short of his career high also set his rookie year.

Numbers don't define his play, but the fact that Woodson's ninth season in the NFL is statistically among his best is a product of more than just his instincts.

He's also battled threw a steady stream of injuries that began with a knee problem in Week 5 against St. Louis, which forced him to miss all the bye week practices. He didn't return to the practice field until the final workout before the Miami game on Oct. 22, and then promptly went out and returned an interception for a touchdown to turn the game in the Packers' favor.

His knee hasn't fully recovered, and other minor maladies (shoulder, ribs) have cropped up along the way. But despite missing more than a dozen practices over the past two months to save the wear-and-tear on his body, Woodson has gotten himself ready each Sunday and is on pace to play in every game for the first time since 2001.

In addition to that toughness is the veteran savvy and experience that make him one of the smarter players on the field as well.

"He brings a very, very competitive passion to the team," Schottenheimer said. "He takes great pride in his performance, and he's a very knowledgeable player. He understands hash splits, he understands formations, he understands what the offense is trying to do to him, and he can do that from a corner position or as a nickel back, so he's always going to put himself in position where he has a chance to make a play."

Woodson has been in position to surpass his career high in interceptions by now, and he knows it.

{sportsad300}Against St. Louis on Oct. 8, Woodson got both hands on a pass over the middle but couldn't quite haul in the tough catch. Then on Nov. 27 at Seattle, after snagging a deflected pass for his first interception of the night and then stepping in front of Deion Branch for his second, he nearly got a third pick at the end of the first half, diving in front of Darrell Jackson at the goal line but only knocking the ball away.

"He's physical, and he's a professional," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said. "He works hard at it. Has he been perfect? Has anybody been perfect, you know? But he's been solid for us. He's been probably one of our more solid guys throughout the whole season."

The only downside for Woodson, a quiet but respected player, is that his new team isn't winning more. Oakland won just 13 games over his final three seasons there, and he hasn't enjoyed discussing his noteworthy plays in the wake of Green Bay's 4-8 mark this season.

"It's never a good feeling losing at all," Woodson said after the loss to the Jets last Sunday. "Coming from Oakland, we didn't win too many games the past three, four years, and now you get into another situation with another team, you've got a fresh start and it's the same thing going on.

"It's a tough situation. You wish it was better, you work hard to make it better, and when it doesn't go your way it's tough."

Putting together such a strong season in his ninth year at age 30 raises the question how much longer Woodson can play this well.

He prepared for training camp this past summer by working out on his own with personal trainers in Houston, and the fact that this year's injuries haven't derailed his season speaks to the condition he's in. Despite being listed at 208 pounds on the team roster, Woodson hasn't been above 200 since the first day of training camp, according to Schottenheimer.

"With guys that are very gifted the way that he is, and they continue to work out and train and do those things, they certainly prolong their career," Schottenheimer said. "Guys that start to lose some speed and so forth, their intelligence and instincts still allow them to play at a high level because they take care of themselves."

That's not to say Woodson will last as long as a marvel like Washington's Darrell Green, who played defensive back until he was 42. Perhaps the longevity of a James Hasty, who retired at age 36, is more realistic. And there's always the possibility he could move from corner to safety somewhere down the road.

But his solid, consistent play in 2006 would indicate he's not nearing the end of the road too awfully soon.

"I don't have a crystal ball to know," Sanders said. "But certainly he plays hard every week."

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