Packers make defense changes
GREEN BAY At one point during the Green Bay Packers' first practice of training camp, Charles Woodson came to the sideline for a breather and went down on one knee between cornerback Tramon Williams and safety Morgan Burnett.
Appropriate, because the Packers' defensive leader apparently isn't connected to one position group anymore.
Going into his 15th pro season, Woodson lined up at safety more than he did at his natural cornerback spot.
"'Wood,' I think he can do it all," safety M.D. Jennings said after practice Thursday.
Woodson's conversion to possibly a bigger role at a new position comes at a critical time. Getting the defense back to performing at a high level has been a priority for the Packers after things took a turn for the worst last season.
General manager Ted Thompson used the team's first six draft picks on defensive players and also signed a few free agents to bolster the depth on that side.
More changes ensued as the Packers kicked off the preseason with Thursday's 2½-hour practice on a warm morning.
A day after the team released veteran Charlie Peprah, Woodson worked extensively at the starting safety spot previously held by Peprah.
"Charles has played that position," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We used to call it our 'Three Okie' package, and now he's just lined up in 'Okie' playing strong safety. So it really isn't anything new . it's the same really as it's always been."
Peprah, who has played six years in the NFL, replaced an injured Nick Collins in the starting lineup only three games into last season. Peprah also was a starting replacement for the Packers for most of their Super Bowl-winning season in 2010.
Green Bay cut him, though, after he failed his physical when players reported for training camp Wednesday. Peprah had knee surgery after last season and didn't participate in the team's offseason workouts.
The Packers previously released Collins in the spring amid concerns about the three-time Pro Bowl player's desire to attempt a comeback from a severe neck injury.
McCarthy still feels good about the Packers' depth at safety, where incumbent starter Burnett could be paired with Woodson, second-year player Jennings or rookie Jerron McMillian.
"We have some young players that we're excited about, some players we've had a chance to watch throughout the spring," McCarthy said. "Charlie's situation, really looking at all the options after his visit with the doctors . really, it's a lot of competition."
Green Bay's defense, which ranked last in the NFL in 2011, had other new looks.
Jarrett Bush worked ahead of Sam Shields at one of the starting cornerback positions. Also, first-round draft pick Nick Perry lined up opposite All-Pro Clay Matthews at outside linebacker.
Desmond Bishop didn't practice, however. The inside linebacker was one of seven players who didn't pass their physical Wednesday after he suffered a strained calf in a personal workout last weekend, McCarthy said.
D.J. Smith played well as a rookie in Bishop's brief absence last season and stood out Thursday. He intercepted a downfield pass by rookie quarterback B.J. Coleman and later deflected a short throw from Aaron Rodgers into the hands of a lunging Woodson.
While just Day 1 of the monthlong preseason, the signs were encouraging for a defense that allowed an average of 411.6 total yards per game and an NFL-record 4,796 yards passing last season.
The Packers ranked second in 2009 and fifth in 2010 for overall defense under coordinator Dom Capers.
"Obviously, last year, our numbers dwindled as a defense, but I anticipate that changing this year," Pro Bowl nose tackle B.J. Raji said.
A position switch for Woodson, who turns 36 in October, could be part of the solution McCarthy and Capers hope comes to fruition before the Packers open the season Sept. 9.
"I think something that's been very evident for Charles, No. 1 throughout his career, he's been a playmaker, whether he's played the corner or the inside position," McCarthy said. "In our particular defense, we feel that he is a lot more valuable to us the closer he is to the ball because of the different positions he can play, the number of different things that we're able to do with him.
"So that's really part of the thinking of trying to get him closer to the ball and more involved because of his instincts. He plays the game a lot like a quarterback does from a defensive side."
If Woodson does wind up at safety, the Packers are possibly looking at a starting tandem of Williams and Bush.
The elevation of Bush at the outset of camp comes at the expense of Shields, whose production last season as the team's nickel back dipped after he made an impact as an undrafted rookie in 2010.
"Sam's a very talented man that frankly needs experience," McCarthy added. "To me, it's not really about Sam versus Jarrett. We don't look at it that way. We need as many playmakers, as many DBs as possible. I anticipate they'll both be major contributors to our secondary."
NOTES: Besides Bishop, FB John Kuhn (knee), TE Andrew Quarless (knee), OT Derek Sherrod (leg), LB Frank Zombo (hamstring), DE Johnny Jones (knee) and G Jaymes Brooks (hamstring) are on the team's physically unable to perform list at the start of camp. . Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP, isn't a fan of camp practices that start at 8:15 a.m. local time. "I like sleeping in," said Rodgers, a California native. "It's always tough coming from the West Coast out here because of the two-hour time difference. It takes a little bit to get used to it." The Packers' first week of camp includes six practices with 8:15 a.m. starts.