Green Bay's secondary has held several teams' No. 1 wide receivers in check this season and they continued that strong play against Carolina's Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith early in Sunday's game, but Smith was able to make two key catches down the stretch that proved to be the difference in Carolina's 35-31 win at Lambeau Field.
After the Packers had taken a 31-28 lead on Mason Crosby's 19-yard field goal with two minutes remaining, returner Mark Jones' returned Crosby's kickoff out to the Green Bay 45. On the very next play, quarterback Jake Delhomme dropped back and aired out a deep pass over the middle for Smith, who was covered by Charles Woodson. Smith made a leaping grab as he was falling back down to the Packers 1-yard line for a 54-yard gain before he was brought down by linebacker Brandon Chillar.
Running back DeAngelo Williams scored on the next play to put the Panthers up for good at 35-31.
"It shouldn't have been a catch, and I take full responsibility," Woodson said. "Like I said, I would take myself 100 percent of the time being in that position with the ball in the air, being able to go get the ball, and I didn't make it happen.
"I should have made it. That's the bottom line. I know Steve is a great player, but he shouldn't have made that catch."
Woodson started his first game at safety in his three seasons as a Packer, opening up in the strong safety spot for Atari Bigby, who was nursing a chronic ankle injury. Second-year safety Aaron Rouse, who has started four games this year in place of Bigby, was inactive with an ankle injury he sustained last Monday night at New Orleans. Nickel back Tramon Williams started at Woodson's customary left corner spot.
Woodson, who last played safety in 2005 in his final season with the Oakland Raiders, said he was informed of the potential position move earlier in the week and was able to get some work at safety during Friday's practice. He added that wasn't sure if he would remain at the strong safety spot next week against Houston or beyond.
"I'm very comfortable," Woodson said. "I've played safety before when I was in Oakland. I grew up playing safety so I know how to play the position. I got a little work this week, and I just tried to get different reads down and that type of thing. I was definitely ready."
Smith's catch that set up the winning score wasn't his only significant play of the game. On the Panthers' previous possession earlier in the fourth quarter, Smith made another catch over the middle down to the Green Bay 1 on 3rd-and-11, this time a 36-yard grab with Williams covering him. He finished the afternoon with four receptions for 105 yards.
"Every good football team has great players, and he's one of ours," Carolina head coach John Fox said. "He's an extremely competitive guy and he's been making plays like that around here since I've been here. He's a tremendous competitor, and I thought he came up big today."
Smith, who entered the game with a team-leading 853 receiving yards on 48 catches (17.8 avg.) despite missing the first two games of the season due to a suspension, was shut out by the Packers secondary in the first half. He didn't catch a pass until Carolina's first possession in the third quarter, two catches on that drive of eight and seven yards, and didn't make another catch until the 36-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Outside of Smith, the secondary allowed just two other receptions by Carolina wide receivers all afternoon, both by Muhsin Muhammad, one being a 44-yard pickup that he turned over on a fumble on the first play from scrimmage.
For a defensive backfield that had given up a total of five catches of 35-plus yards by opposing wide receivers in the first nine games, they have now seen opponents match that total in the last two games. In Monday night's loss at New Orleans, wide receivers Lance Moore and Marques Colston each made 70-yard touchdown catches in the Saints' 51-29 win.
For the second straight game, it was those explosive plays that were too much to overcome.
"We're just not making enough (plays)," Woodson said. "I guess you can't really pinpoint what that is, but the opportunities, they'll come again."