GREEN BAY—On the day last spring when Charles Woodson was "officially" moved to safety, the cornerback position "officially" became the pivot point of the Packers defense. Any chance Dom Capers' unit had of improving depended on a young player emerging at cornerback.
"If you don't have corners that can cover, you're going to be playing a lot of 'cover two.' How much you do is going to be based on how well you cover," Capers said on Friday, as he put the finishing touches to his unit's preparation for Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans.
As the postseason nears, Capers' defense is growing in scheme and is shooting up the rankings. A defense that was dead last in the league overall and the same in pass defense and in sacks per pass play last season is now 14th, 16th and sixth respectively.
How did it happen so quickly? You could certainly make a case for the emergence of rookie cornerback Casey Hayward and the re-emergence of third-year corner Sam Shields as being the catalysts to the defense's rise.
Hayward leads the team with six interceptions and Shields is tied with cornerback Tramon Williams and safety Morgan Burnett with two picks each. Shields' improved tackling is the real story, however, because it allows Capers to keep Shields on the field and not worry about teams running at him.
"I think we have the fewest missed tackles of any team in the league," Cornerbacks Coach Joe Whitt said. "Sam Shields is the one I'm most pleased with. His physicality has totally changed. He was challenged in that area."
Hayward is a strong candidate to win league rookie of the year honors. He's been more than a contributor, he's been a star, a player who has made game-winning types of plays.
"He does not miss assignments. He does not give up plays. I think he's as good as any rookie playing," Whitt said of Hayward.
With Williams playing at his expected high level at the other cornerback position, and with second-year man Davon House also an ascending player, it would appear the Packers are set at the position for a long time. More to the point, cornerback gives the Packers the look of a defense playing at peak performance heading into the postseason.
"One of the critical things is the kind of momentum you carry into the playoffs. How we play the next two weeks is critical. You want to be ascending going into the playoffs. You want to be playing your best football now in December," Capers said.
Is the Packers defense playing its best football?
"I think so. We played our most complete game on Sunday. That's how you gain confidence, being able to go out and do it on the field," Capers said. "I grade every play as a win or a loss. My confidence is greatly increased when we have more wins than losses."
The Packers defense will attempt to continue that trend two more times before the postseason begins. Additional coverage - Dec. 21