GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was a subtle shift, about 5 yards or so in distance, but the future of the Green Bay Packers defense this season may rest on where cornerback Tramon Williams is now planted.
Two weeks ago, defensive coordinator Dom Capers looked at the opponents the Packers were to face in the final four weeks and made the assessment that he needed to get Williams back to his natural position of left cornerback.
Williams had helped fill the void at slot corner when Casey Hayward couldn't man his position because of a chronic hamstring problem and rookie Micah Hyde was still learning what it's like to be a traffic cop at the intersection of free release and two-way go.
But when the Packers went to the Super Bowl after the 2010 season, the last time Williams was healthy and playing at a level he's showing glimpses of again, he was the left outside cornerback. Charles Woodson was the slot corner and Sam Shields, a rookie then, was the right outside cornerback.
The last two weeks, Capers has returned to having Williams and Shields on the outside and is using a combination of Hyde and Jarrett Bush to cover slot receivers and tight ends. The result has been more passes broken up, more flexibility in handling the opponents' top receiver and most importantly, three clutch interceptions.
In the victory over Dallas last Sunday, the defense gave up 358 passing yards, but Shields and Williams had fourth-quarter interceptions -- Williams almost had two -- that were as big as any the Packers have had since Williams picked off Atlanta's Matt Ryan and returned it for a touchdown just before halftime of a divisional playoff game in 2010.
"I think right now, that's our best combination with those guys outside with Micah Hyde and Jarrett Bush inside," Capers said. "Obviously, the two plays that those guys made at the end of the (Dallas) game, if they don't make them we don't win the game.
"So those are the critical plays that at times this year we haven't made."
It's not to say the defense has turned things around, but the fact it has five interceptions in the last three games comes amid what had been a horrible turnover drought. As any coordinator knows, a couple of turnovers can erase an otherwise losing performance.
It comes at a time when the Packers are facing teams that like to line up their top receivers outside and their tight end in the slot. It was the case with Atlanta and Dallas and it will be the case Sunday against Pittsburgh and next Sunday against Chicago.
The significance of moving Williams back outside can't be understated. This was his first year playing the slot more than occasionally, and while he did a solid job he was not coming up with interceptions.
What's more, cornerback Davon House, who was replacing Williams outside in the nickel, was struggling. Figuring it was easier to offer double-team help to Hyde and Bush with his safeties than it was to help out House, Capers made the switch against Atlanta.
"The most important thing is finding that next guy to come in and get the job done," Williams said. "Obviously, you take Davon off the field, you take another player who you feel can cover outside (off the field) and you have to find another guy who can cover the slot inside.
"It scrambles the rotation a little bit."
But as was most noticeable against Dallas, Williams and Shields were able to stay on their respective sides and let Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant come to them. Bryant saw some time in the slot and finished with 11 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown, but quarterback Tony Romo had to target Bryant 17 times to get those numbers.
And both Williams and Shields minimized the number of times they let Bryant get behind them. Much of his damage came on crossing routes early in the game when the two corners were not on him directly. He had five catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
The Cowboys kept driving into Green Bay territory and the Packers kept holding them out of the end zone, forcing five field goals on drives that easily could have been touchdowns. Having two corners who cover man-to-man against a receiver like Bryant allows Capers to do more with the rest of the defense.
"Dom, he has faith in us," said Shields, who was in man coverage with Miles Austin when he picked off Romo. "Not just Dom, the whole defensive staff, they have confidence in all of us. That's the way it has to be, because we're the ones out there.
"Times like this it's time to make plays as a secondary, as a defense. We will continue to do that. I think it's going to be better and better."
Leaving the corners outside puts pressure on Hyde (in the nickel) and Bush (in the dime) to cover slot receivers like Austin, Bryant and tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten. Bush had probably his best game on defense in the victory over the Falcons, breaking up a fourth-down pass to Gonzalez and sealing the game with an interception.
Capers knows it's easier to double a slot receiver than it is a single receiver because the safeties are in the middle of the field, but as he has seen with his safeties, it's not always a sure thing they will be there to help out.
Morgan Burnett got beat in man coverage for a touchdown against Atlanta and was late on several plays against Dallas. But he also broke up a deep ball to Bryant after Hyde passed the receiver off. There is still an issue with the safety trio of Burnett, M.D. Jennings and Sean Richardson making sure the inside of the field is covered.
The Steelers' top receiver, Antonio Brown (95 catches, 1,307 yards, eight touchdowns), tends to line up outside and often Emanuel Sanders will be on the other side and tight end Heath Miller in the slot. Capers has the option to double one of the outside receivers and give Hyde help in the slot or blitz and leave Williams or Shields to cover Brown man-to-man.
Hyde's improved play since being spun around by New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz has allowed Capers to handle the tight ends in the slot with one player. Witten got deep down the middle on linebackers, but Hyde and Bush did a pretty good job on him.
"I definitely learned," Hyde said of his rough experiences in the slot. "Every game is an opportunity to go out there and learn more. The Giants was a couple games ago and I feel like I'm a better player than I was for the Giants game and I'm better player than I was for the Falcons game.
"Every week I'm improving."
If the Packers still have something to play for after this week, there will be the matter of the Bears' Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, who dominated in the first meeting both with their receiving (12 catches for 167 yards, two touchdowns) and their downfield blocking. That would present the ultimate challenge for Williams and Shields as well as Hyde, who would have to cover tight end Martellus Bennett.
First, Capers needs to see fewer yards allowed and more turnovers against the Steelers. He hopes he has found that winning combination again.
"I like the last couple weeks," Capers said. "We've had to fight our tail off to come back. In the fourth quarter, we have the two takeaways two weeks ago and we had the two critical ones Sunday. You saw the results."
Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
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