Underwood Will Be Under Fire

Rookie sixth-round pick Brandon Underwood, with three games of experience on defense, will be put to the test against the pass-happy Cardinals. Will Underwood trust what he sees or will he shrink from the playoff spotlight? That will be a huge key on Sunday.

Welcome to the NFL, kid.

It doesn't take hours of film study to figure out the story line for Sunday's Packers-Cardinals playoff game.

The Cardinals, with one of the all-time great playoff quarterbacks, are going to come out throwing. No sense in beating their head against the wall against Green Bay's No. 1-ranked run defense.

They've got Kurt Warner. They've got Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin (presumably) and Steve Breaston and Early Doucet and Tim Hightower. They've got film. They've seen Ben Roethlisberger spread the field with four receivers and pick apart the Packers' suspect secondary to the tune of 503 yards.

That will be the game plan for a Cardinals team that has run the ball less than any team in the NFL.

The Packers will combat that game plan with the incomparable Charles Woodson, the up-and-coming Tramon Williams, the much-maligned Jarrett Bush and, quite possibly, a rookie who was the ripe old age of 12 when Warner led the Rams to victory in the Super Bowl a decade ago.

Welcome to the NFL, Brandon Underwood.

"I'm excited. It's my first playoff," Underwood said. "I'm blessed to be in this experience with the team. I watched Kurt when he played with the Rams. I've been following him. At the same time, it's a game and I've got a job to do. If my number gets called, I'm going to do my job. My teammates will be looking for me to step up and make plays."

Underwood, a sixth-round pick, was the 30th cornerback selected in April. He's lined up on the defense in three games this season, including the last two weeks — a blowout win over Seattle and in a meaningless game last week at Arizona. Not exactly pressure-packed situations.

The stakes will be infinitely higher on Sunday. The Cardinals are going to put Bush and Underwood to the test. How they respond very well will dictate whether the Packers' season continues beyond this weekend.

"You don't know what anybody's going to do until they're put into that situation," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said on Friday. "We'll see. Hopefully, he will have the fortitude to work through any issues that we might have, but you don't know how anybody's going to respond until they've been put in that position. I have great confidence in him, I have great confidence in Josh Bell and the whole secondary. Now, we just have to go perform."

Underwood missed most of the offseason work, barred from practicing with the Packers while school was in session at Cincinnati. That wasn't the big reason why Underwood wasn't in the mix earlier in the season, though.

"Technically, his stance was awful, his backpedal was awful, he was tight," Whitt said. "If you look at him now and watching film, it's hard for me to tell the difference (in terms of technique) between him and Tramon. He's more fluid, he understands how we're placing our feet, he understands his hand placement and technique and things we teach here. He's really gotten better with his technique and just the understanding of, ‘Let's just not run the defense. Let's understand how this offense is attacking us and how we're going to route combinations away from them. If they run this route combination against this defense, we're not looking for a knockdown. We're looking for an interception, we're looking for an impactful hit.'"

When Underwood missed the Pittsburgh game with a hip injury, it wasn't a setback as much as it as a painful lesson.

Brandon Underwood, right, vs. Jason Wright.
Paul Connors/AP Images
"I think it gave him an opportunity to see that this game is very important and if you're not out there, somebody else will have the opportunity to come and take your position," Whitt said. "Ever since that injury, he's detailed his work and been more of a professional, and I really like his approach and where he's at in his development right now. If anything, it was an eye-opener that, ‘If I don't really buckle down, somebody else will and take this position from me.'"

It's Underwood's job now. The fourth corner isn't a marquee position, but it will be against the Cardinals. Warner is an ageless legend, and he's got what's widely considered to be the best receiving corps in the NFL. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt calls the plays, and he'll force Bush and Underwood on the field by putting three and four receivers on the field. That was the Cardinals' plan of attack in the first 15 games of the season. That was their plan of attack in their drive to the Super Bowl last season.

Woodson can't cover everyone, and because Dom Capers wants to keep his defense unpredictable, he won't match Woodson up one-on-one against Fitzgerald for the entire game. So, there will be times when the inexperienced Underwood will find himself staring straight into the eyes of Fitzgerald or Boldin.

It sounds like a daunting challenge, but if he's done his homework, it's not mission impossible.

"I always say an offensive formation has (a voice) if you'll listen to it," Whitt said. "The way they come out of that huddle and the way they line up, it speaks volumes if you'll listen to what it's trying to tell you. That's where you start, and then you play from there."

That's how Woodson plays and how Whitt teaches. Woodson doesn't play the receiver — he plays the entire offense. Through endless hours of film study, a specific formation in a specific down-and-distance situation will tell a defensive back everything he needs to know. It's not gambling if you're not guessing.

"It's hard for guys to buy into it, because once they get out there, they see they've got that speed on them, a great player on them, they sort of put the blinders on and start to focus on that receiver," Whitt said. "Well, see the big picture and everything else will get smaller and slow down for you. You start eliminating plays. If the back's depth is at 5 yards, it's a pass. Now, I'm eliminating the run so I don't have to worry about run keys. If they're in this split, they can't run these certain type routes, so I can eliminate those plays. Now you've eliminated 80 percent of the plays that you know they're going to run. Now you're just playing the percentages now. That's where the teaching has to increase with some of those young guys."

Playing the odds has allowed Woodson to pick off nine passes — including one last week, when he jumped a route to Fitzgerald for an interception that he returned for a touchdown.

"Charles told us that one thing that was important to do was to be able to believe what you see," Underwood said. "You practice and you rep and you repeat and it just becomes a habit. What you see from what you've been studying is going to be what you see on the field. You might get a couple unscouted looks here and there but you have to believe and really, truly believe what you're seeing, what you feel is going to happen is going to happen."

Seeing is believing. But with the playoff spotlight on him, with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback looking to dismantle him just like he's done so many cornerbacks in his career, will Underwood really believe what he sees or will he be afraid to be wrong? Will he rise to the occasion or shrink from it?

"You're good, or you're not. You can play to the level, or you can't," Whitt said. "Period. I don't care if you're 24, I don't care if you're 34. You're either going to step up to it, or you're not. And I think we will. But you don't know until it happens. And I'm excited. I like the preparation, I like the focus, I like where we're headed. We're going to play well. Now, are we going to win or not? I don't know. But we're going to go out there and hit ‘em in the mouth, we're going to play fast, we're not going to hesitate, and then wherever it falls from there, it will fall."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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