Casey Hayward wasted no time finding a spot in Green Bay's defensive backfield.
Good thing, because the Packers are going to need him — and his sticky hands — more than ever this next month.
The Packers (4-3) have a big hole in their secondary with Charles Woodson out approximately six weeks with a broken collarbone. While Hayward plays cornerback and Woodson is technically a safety, the rookie has shown a knack for the kind of big-impact plays that are Woodson's trademark. Hayward has four interceptions in the last three games, and is tied for the league lead in picks.
"From the first day, you could see his ball skills," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "He's a playmaker. Any time you take a rookie and play him in a couple different positions in a multi-scheme defense, I think that says a little bit about the young man. Now that he's getting opportunities, he's taken advantage of them.
"He's got his hands on the ball again today a couple times, so he's getting better with every opportunity."
The Packers thought enough of Hayward to take him in the second round of the draft. His seven interceptions last year tied him for third most in the country, and his 15 overall matched the Vanderbilt record set by Leonard Coleman. Hayward also holds the Vanderbilt marks for passes defended in a career (46), and single season (17), and was second-team all-SEC in both of his last two years.
But picking off guys in college, even in the big, bad SEC, is one thing. The NFL is quite another.
"You always come in with a confident attitude and I'm a confident guy," Hayward said. "So I felt like whenever I got my opportunity I was going to take the best of it. The ball was going to come to me. You're going to get caught on some, but I felt like I was going to make some plays, as well."
Watching Woodson in training camp only made the adjustment easier.
An eight-time Pro Bowler, Woodson has 55 interceptions, 11 of which he's returned for touchdowns. But it's not just the picks that have made him so disruptive. He can — and does — play all over, and quarterbacks can never be sure exactly where he'll pop up. He's also one of the most physical players in the secondary, and his linebacker-like hits have forced countless drops and fumbles.
The Packers moved Woodson to safety in their base defense this year, but he still plays slot cornerback in the sub packages.
"He's a guy people have to account for every time," Aaron Rodgers said. "I know if I was playing our defense, I would want to know where he's at, whether he was at the high safety or whether he was down in the slot or whether he was coming on a pressure. He gets a lot of hits on the football. He's forced a lot of fumbles here over his time."
Though Rodgers may be the face of the franchise, Woodson is every bit as important to the Packers. Just as Rodgers does the offense, Woodson takes charge of the defense, making sure everyone knows the various packages and the coverages that go with them. He can often be seen signaling to his teammates when he spots something on the field or catches someone out of position. On the sideline, he's always tutoring the younger players.
"Just watching him I was getting more comfortable, just seeing how a Pro Bowler does it," Hayward said.
Playing opposite Tramon Williams helped, too. Williams was a Pro Bowler in 2010, when he had six interceptions and the Packers won the Super Bowl. He led the Packers last year with 24 passes defended, a career high, and had four more picks. He has two interceptions so far this year, and leads the Packers again with 13 passes defended.
Given a choice between throwing to Williams' side of the field or Hayward's, offenses are going to go to the rookie every time.
"No doubt," Hayward said. "You don't want to go at Tramon. He's going to pick the ball as well. He's capable of doing it this season already with two early and a lot of passes defended. So when I'm out there, I'm going to be looking for the ball to come to me."
After seeing his playing time increase in Green Bay's first four games, Hayward made a big impression against Indianapolis when he picked off an Andrew Luck pass meant for Reggie Wayne. He was even better the following week with two picks against the previously unbeaten Texans, the first multi-interception game by a Packers rookie since Mike McKenzie in 1999.
Hayward's first interception snuffed out a Texans scoring drive, as he picked off Matt Schaub in the end zone. (He'd broken up Schaub's two previous passes, too.)
"He has a lot of poise," McCarthy said. "You can see the game wasn't too big for him from the first time we lined up."
Hayward got his first start last weekend in St. Louis and, sure enough, he came up with the ball again.
It's the first time since Tom Flynn in 1984 that a Green Bay rookie has had four picks in three games. The four interceptions are also the most by a Packers rookie since McKenzie had six in '99 — and there are still nine games to play.
While teams might start going away from Hayward if he keeps this up, he won't mind if they keep picking on the rookie.
"You want the ball to come at you no matter if you're a Pro Bowler or not," Hayward said. "The more opportunities you have to get the ball, that's what I like so they can keep throwing the ball at me all they want. They're going to catch a few balls here, but I feel like I'm going to make some plays as well."
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