Most NFL players at 39 years old have long since retired and their accomplishments have become part of NFL lore. Charles Woodson isn’t one of those guys.
Selected by Oakland with the fourth pick in the 1998 draft, sandwiched in between Peyton Manning at the top and Randy Moss at No. 22 that year, Woodson’s Hall of Fame résumé has been stamped. But he isn’t done yet.
Not only is Woodson still playing after celebrating his 39th birthday last month, he’s playing at a high level. He enters play this week tied for the league lead with five interceptions, he’s playing as well as he did with Green Bay or his first stint with the Raiders.
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs is expecting to see a lot of Woodson, who was held out of Wednesday’s practice with a shoulder injury but is expected to play Sunday. For a young emerging talent, Diggs knows that he is going to draw a lot more attention from defenses, which will include Woodson, who is used both as a safety and a situational cornerback in Oakland’s defense.
“It’s a challenge to go up against the guys who are viewed as being the best at what they do,” Diggs said. “He’s been around a very long time and playing at a high level. It’s all about preparation. We know he’s going to be aggressive and will get in there and stick his nose in the action. He’s well-respected throughout the game, so he will be a big challenge.”
While this will be the first time Diggs will go up against Woodson, the veteran safety no stranger to Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. As a defensive-minded head coach, Zimmer has followed Woodson’s career from a distance and remains impressed with what he can bring to the table despite his advancing age playing a young man’s position.
“He still can run,” Zimmer said. “He’s still a really good athlete. I think playing in the back end, I think he disguises well. He’ll line up in the middle of the field and then be playing a half-sided coverage or quarters coverage or something like that. He does a good job. Sometimes they line him up down close to the box like a robber. They do a lot of different things with him.”
Given the focus the Vikings have put on targeting Diggs, it stands to reason the Raiders and future Vikings opponents are going to give Diggs a lot more defensive attention than he received earlier in the season.
In Oakland’s case, that attention will likely come from Woodson on several plays. Diggs is impressed with Woodson’s attention to detail and athleticism, but added that he and his teammates can’t get too caught up in Woodson’s playmaking ability because you have to prepare to attack a team’s strengths and be as knowledgeable about what a team runs defensively, whether it’s a future Hall of Famer like Woodson or not.
“Different teams have different schemes and different defenses you’re going to go against every week,” Diggs said. “Those guys are all solid and good. You’re going to go against different (defensive backs) every week. It’s all about preparation.”
When Woodson was in Green Bay, he made the official switch from cornerback to safety, but he was moved around all over the field, becoming something of a hybrid safety/corner who can do everything at a high level.
Zimmer doesn’t know exactly how Oakland plans to use him, but he does know that Woodson needs to be accounted for because, even at 39, he’s proved more than capable of making the plays that turn games around. Asked if he expects Woodson to be playing multiple roles in the Raiders’ defense like he did with the Packers, Zimmer said we’ll have to wait and see.
“I don’t know, but I know that when you play nickel, you see a lot of pattern combinations that you would see at a safety, the same as a safety, just a little closer,” Zimmer said. “It’s hard for me to speak on him, but at that position to safety, back when I first started coaching we had a safety that played nickel and that helped him with his progressions.”
Diggs said the challenge of playing against someone with a strong a reputation as Woodson has can be a little daunting, but he’s not letting the gray hairs fool him. He’s seen on tape this season what Woodson is still capable of and he isn’t taking the grand old man lightly.
“He’s one of the best DBs that has ever played the game,” Diggs said. “He doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s very knowledgeable of the game and you have to respect him because, even after all this time, he’s still playing at a very high level.”
Diggs grew up respecting Woodson and, as he got farther along in his college career, he started studying up on the best wide receivers and defensive backs in the NFL, someday hoping to get his shot to show what he could do head-to-head with the players he looked up to in his youth.
Woodson is on a short list of those players. On Sunday, he’s going to introduce himself to Woodson, but his hope is to let his play do his talking prior to him actually speaking to the future Hall of Famer.
“I’m not going to be doing anything like that during the pregame,” Diggs said. “During that time, I focus in on getting myself ready for the game. But after the game I’ll definitely seek him out. He’s a legend in this game it will be fun to go up against one of the best that ever played and see how you can do against him.”