Aches have led to Packers' defensive pain
Linebacker Clay Matthews (thigh), cornerback Charles Woodson (foot and knee) and cornerback Tramon Williams (shoulder) have all missed practice time or been limited over the past couple of weeks and played at less than 100 percent.
It would be excuse making to say that's all that ails coordinator Dom Capers' unit, but one area where it cannot be denied is at Williams' spot.
Since suffering a badly bruised right shoulder against New Orleans opening week, Williams has not been the same. He missed the Carolina game—it was the first time in his career he had missed a practice, let alone a game—and then came back wearing a harness against Chicago.
Against Denver Sunday, never was it more evident that Williams is being protected in the defensive scheme because of the shoulder. He was lining up 8 to 10 yards off receivers much of the game, abandoning his blanket-style bump-and-run technique for mostly zone concepts.
"That's been a big adjustment and it's frustrating at the same time because I'm giving up things I wouldn't usually give up," Williams said. "So it's frustrating, but I know it's best for the team to stay out of those battles and try to get better."
The idea is that if Williams can get through a couple of games without aggravating the injury, he will be at full strength soon. Williams is still breaking on the ball quickly and tackling when he has to, but the real Tramon Williams still hasn't come out.
For the Packers, that's pretty devastating.
Williams is arguably the most important player on Capers' depth chart because of his ability to match up with any receiver and shut him down. Last season Williams blossomed into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and against Atlanta in the playoffs people started to recognize that.
Few, least of all Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, will forget the interception Williams returned 70 yards for a touchdown with no time remaining in the first half. The touchdown increased the Packers' lead to 28-14 and silenced the crowd.
"Those things are always tough to get over," Ryan said this week. "There's no doubt about that. It serves as good motivation during the off-season. When you're playing against a really good football team like Green Bay you can't make those types of mistakes and expect to overcome them."
After that loss, the Falcons traded five draft choices—including a first-rounder next season—to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones with the sixth pick. Williams held White to 57 yards receiving and it's possible the Falcons felt it was critical they have another big-play option on the field.
The 6-foot, 211-pound White and the 6-3, 220-pound Jones are going to be a tough matchup for Williams, Woodson and Sam Shields. If Williams is 100%, they could stick him on White and turn their attention to Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez in the passing game.
But the Falcons saw the tape of Williams against Denver, and they might like their chances against him.
Denver came out in the first quarter firing to Williams' side, including five times in one drive. Williams was playing off on most of them and surrendered three catches for 35 yards. The hardest part for him was that they were plays he normally makes with ease.
"It was kind of tough to deal with," Williams said. "When I looked at film I wasn't in bad position on any of them. But if I was playing the game I wanted to play, I would have been a lot closer on making some of those plays."
While Matthews and Woodson are dealing with aches and pains that dissipate as they loosen up during a game, Williams is constantly making sure he doesn't do anything dumb. He's used to mixing it up on running plays and jamming receivers in the chest, but he hasn't been able to do too much of that lately.
"It's different," he said. "There are some adjustments you have to make. Obviously, you can't play the same game. You're kind of out there trying to play but trying to stay out of some action. You're trying to heal at the same time you're playing.
"There have been some plays where even when the guy caught the ball I was right there on him. I feel if I was 100 (percent), then I make that play. At that time, I just couldn't get the ball out because of lack of strength or whatever it might be."
Williams said the plan has worked out because he feels closer to full strength than he has since the injury. In the second half Sunday, Williams only gave up one reception of consequence and when the game was over he wasn't any worse for the wear.
How exactly Capers will use Williams against the Falcons Sunday night might depend on how the cornerback feels the day of the game. The one thing Williams knows is that he's going to have to be in the scrum more than he has.
"I'll just have to see how my shoulder does," he said. "It's getting better. It's real close. I'll probably use it a lot more this week. I'm excited. I don't want to go too fast, but I'm going to go.
"They're big guys. I'm definitely going to have to get in there."