Raise your hand if, at the beginning of this season, you would have thought the Packers’ defense, not their offense, would be providing the locomotion for a playoff run.
(Anyone still have their hands up? OK, a few of you — and you’re lucky I don’t have access to a polygraph test.)
Now, what if I’d told you the Packers would be doing this without Nick Barnett, Brad Jones, Atari Bigby, Johnny Jolly, Morgan Burnett and Al Harris?
(Nobody left? That’s what I thought.)
The real story of the 2010 Green Bay Packers is not just that they’ve managed to weather a slew of injuries on defense. It’s that, in spite of those injuries and with a group of castoffs and retreads, they’ve put together a unit that is playing championship-caliber football and carrying a team that’s not getting as much out of its prolific offense as it should.
The Packers’ offensive production this year, while certainly affected by the loss of Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant, hasn’t been up to the level most would have expected. In their last five games, they’ve scored three, 27, 45, 10 and 21 points. Instead, it’s been the defense, holding strong even as men fall the wayside, that’s still got the Packers playing. And Sunday’s 21-16 win over the Philadelphia Eagles was no exception.
The defense traced certain elements of the Minnesota Vikings’ blueprint for beating Michael Vick, but kept things unpredictable enough that Vick couldn’t counter. As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert discussed this morning, they threw a grab bag of blitz looks at Vick, and kept him from burning them with his feet, like he’s done so many times in the past. And when they needed a big play, it was Desmond Bishop making a touchdown-saving tackle on DeSean Jackson or Jarius Wynn sacking Vick. And with the game on the line, it was Tramon Williams — without a doubt the biggest revelation of this season — leaping in front of Riley Cooper to intercept Vick in the end zone.
The Packers started four defenders on Sunday than they did in the season opener in Philadelphia. They faced a more dynamic Eagles offense than they did that day. And they allowed just 32 more yards, while allowing four fewer points.
They appear to have their cornerback tandem of the future in Williams and Sam Shields. They’ve watched B.J. Raji become a Pro Bowl-caliber fixture in the middle of their defensive line. They might have found a player in Erik Walden, though the jury is still out on the linebacker. They’ve revived A.J. Hawk’s career, gotten solid play from Charlie Peprah and in spots, Howard Green — a mid-season pickup like Walden — has played well.
Much of the success comes from the scheme, and Dom Capers has earned all the superlatives he’s received for his work with the Packers’ defense this year. But his position coaches — particularly Kevin Greene, Winston Moss, Joe Whitt Jr. and Darren Perry — have been just as crucial. The Packers have played defense at a level that should leave them in fear of no one, and they’ve done with a scheme and a philosophy so solid, their next-man-up philosophy has worked.
Even if the Packers don’t reach or win the Super Bowl this year, imagine how good they can be next year, with their depth restored at all three levels of defense and another draft for Ted Thompson to add athletes to the group. Capers is due a raise, but I have a hard time seeing him leave for a head coaching job at this point in his career. This could be a special defense for the next few seasons. Think about what happens when they add Finley back to their offense.
But this is still about now, about a season that’s still going and Super Bowl chances that are very much alive. And that, first and foremost, is because of the defense.
If the Packers shut down the Falcons next week, you won’t find me among the surprised any more.