This defense is good

Okay:  I was wrong.

When the Packers lost both Al Harris and Aaron Kampman for the season in the same game, I expected the defense to have a drop off in production:  after all, teams don’t lose Pro Bowl caliber players and get better—right?

Well, maybe they do.

In saying that, I’m not trying to imply that this is a situation of addition by subtraction.  In other words, the Packers’ recent success defensively is not due to Harris and Kampman being sidelined; rather, it is due to improved and inspired play throughout the entire defense.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the individuals who are making this defense an absolute pleasure to watch.

Matthews continues to make big plays as a rookie

The first reason, perhaps the most surprising yet the most enjoyable reason, why the Packers are playing great defense is the emergence of the rookies.  Let’s start with Clay Matthews, a player whom I’ve praised a lot, and deservedly so, since he became a fulltime starter in Week 4.  Matthews was all over the field against the Ravens last Monday:  he led the team with 5 tackles, forced a fumble, and registered 2 sacks.  Matthews is going to be the real deal, folks.  He has a great motor and never quits on a play, which was evident in his sack of Matthew Stafford to close the first half during the Thanksgiving game two weeks ago.  As he continues to progress and mature, Matthews seems more and more like the type of person who can become a leader of a defense.  He’s already won the confidence of his teammates:  said Ryan Pickett after last Monday’s win, “We expect that from Clay.  He doesn’t play like a rookie.”

Finally healthy, Raji is turning into a force along the defensive line

BJ Raji is another rookie who’s made some big plays the last few games.  Hindered by an injured ankle for most of the first half of the season, Raji has been healthy as of late, and the Packers’ defense has been reaping the benefits.  His bursting through the line only to swallow up Willis McGahee for a three yard loss to start the second quarter is just one example of the type of play we can except to see in the future from this impressive rook.   Raji’s impact won’t always be noticeable on the stat sheet but it is in the film.  He has impressive strength, which he compliments well with great speed for a man of his size, and consequently, he’s been starting to draw a slew of double-teams.  This, in turn, is freeing up other players who in their own right are deserving of double-teams, such as Pickett and Cullen Jenkins.  Raji’s improved play the past couple games gives the Packers a great rotation, but more importantly, the defense doesn’t regress when the starters rotate out.  In fact, one has to wonder if the team doesn’t play better when Raji is in the game.

The other rookie making his presence felt is Brad Jones.  Though faced with the unenviable task of replacing the injured Kampman, Jones has held his own quite nicely.  In his first start against the Cowboys, Jones held the point of attack and was second on the team with 7 tackles.  While many praised Jones’ play, they did so with tempered optimism, noting that teams will be better prepared for Jones in the future now that there is actual game footage of him.  Well, Jones has started two games since, one against the Lions on Thanksgiving and the other last Monday against the Ravens, and he continues to impress.  Some pundits even believe the defense is faster with Jones in the line-up than with Kampman.  Regardless, Jones has put forth an admirable effort over the past month or so, and he displayed great speed when he beat fellow rookie Michael Oher for a sack last Monday.

While it’s great to see not only one but three rookies flourish, especially in a complicated scheme such as the one Dom Capers employs, questions about and concerns over the dreaded “rookie wall” are becoming more pronounced by the week.  And the concerns are valid:  I’ll admit, if the Packers want to make the playoffs and, more importantly, make a push toward the Super Bowl, they need all three rookies to continue playing at a high level.  That’s a lot of pressure, but for some reason, I feel these three are up for the task.  Part of my optimism stems from the tread on each player’s proverbial tires; that is, the major impetus in rookies hitting “the wall” is a lack of stamina.  Coming from the college game, where they are not accustomed to playing on a weekly basis in December, most rookies tend to tire.  But fortunately for the Packers, neither Matthews, Raji, nor Jones were starting from day one:  Matthews didn’t become a fulltime starter until Week 4, Raji doesn’t start (though he does play starter snaps for a defensive lineman), and Jones didn’t become a fulltime starter until two weeks ago.  Collectively, the rookies reveled in the spotlight last Monday, as they played their best game, as a set, of the year.  Put differently, these rookies seem to be peeking, to be hitting their stride, and I just hope it can carry on through December and into January.

Barnett has put together a great season, perhaps his best as a Packer

The second major reason the Packers’ defense continues to play great is the performance of the inside linebackers.  At this point, it’s safe to say that Nick Barnett is back.  By that, I don’t mean he’s healthy, though he is; rather, I mean the 2007 Nick Barnett is back—except this version seems more mature.  After tackling Ray Rice for a seven yard loss early in the fourth quarter, I expected Barnett to bust out his patented samurai chop, a celebration he has been scrutinized for performing at inopportune times.  And while that play would have surely warranted the samurai chop, Barnett instead opted to clap his hands gently and to point to the fans, perhaps a sign that he does indeed “get it.”  Although his play last Monday doesn’t stand out statistically, Barnett was the major reason Rice was rendered inconspicuous.  Barnett shadowed Rice all night, essentially eliminating the Raven’s biggest playmaker.  Overall, Barnett has put together a fantastic year playing at a position wherein many expected him to struggle.

Hawk has made the most of his opportunities since Chillar was sidelined

The other inside linebacker exceeding expectations is AJ Hawk.  Early in the season, Hawk was seemingly demoted, playing solely in base formations.  The team was disappointed in his play, and the coaches apparently informed him of much behind closed doors.  And although it took Brandon Chillar getting hurt in order to give him another opportunity, Hawk has made the most of it and has responded with some of his best play as a Packer.  Hawk has always been considered assignment steady, a solid player who didn’t make too many mistakes.  The problem for many, however, was that he didn’t live up to the billing of the number five overall pick.  In other words, Hawk wasn’t developing into the playmaker many thought he would.  Lately, however, Hawk has become just that:  a playmaker.  He’s flying around the field, and he’s making tackles at and behind the line of scrimmage.  Perhaps most impressive is his improved play in coverage.  Early in his young career, Hawk was considered one of the better coverage linebackers in the game.  Many have since soured on that assessment, but Hawk is once again showing that such people—as with the people who have written him off as a bust—might have spoken prematurely.  His huge game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter is evidence of that.

Collins has an interception in three straight games

The play in the secondary is a third reason for the Packers’ continued defensive success.  One player in that secondary is Pro Bowler Nick Collins, who once again is having a Pro Bowl season.  Last Monday, Collins intercepted Joe Flacco on an attempted flea flicker, giving Collins a pick in each of the last three games—and four interceptions over the last five games.  Although he wasn’t giving up big plays or missing tackles, Collins was still off to a slow start to begin the season.  Part of the reason, one could argue, is he was compensating for the loss of fellow safety Atari Bigby.  Another reason was because he, like his teammates, were still acclimating to the 3-4 scheme.  Either way, Collins has once again become the playmaker he was throughout the 2007 season, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Tramon Williams is another player in the Packers’ secondary who deserves some praise.  Joe Flacco and the Raven’s offense targeted him all game long, and in the process, Williams was flagged for some big defensive pass interference calls.  Some of those were legit, while others, at least in my opinion, were more the result of the refs targeting a player than watching the play.  Nonetheless, one has to appreciate Williams’ short memory.  Even though Flacco made an egregious decision in throwing across his body and into the endzone, Williams’ recovery speed, which should not be overlooked, is what turned that play from a mistake in judgment to a monumental error in execution.  As I said a few weeks ago, Williams isn’t as good as Harris, and considering who’s lining up on the other side of the field, we can expect to see opposing quarterbacks target Williams frequently from here on out.  That said, I trust Williams.  He’s going to give up plays here and there; he’ll get flagged a couple other times as well.  But he’s also a playmaker with a lot of heart.

Lastly, there’s this guy named Charles Woodson.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

Woodson is making an incredibly strong case for NFL Defensive MVP

There really isn’t much else to say about Woodson that hasn’t already be said.  The guy, put bluntly, is just amazing.  I haven’t seen as good a defensive player don the Green and Gold since Reggie White.  His diving tackle at the goal line to set up Williams’ interception is the stuff of legends.  Though I may be a bit biased, I have a hard time believing anyone else is ahead of him in the race for the defensive MVP.  He’s just a game changer, a player offenses need to account for on every play.  His versatility, athletic prowess, and football acumen is unfathomable.  I’m not the most easy person to impress, but Woodson has been impressing me on almost a weekly basis this year.  He’s simply outstanding, and I mean that without the slightest tinge of hyperbole.

Although this defense had been ranked number one overall for the past two weeks, many questioned the ranking since it was predicated on total yardage allowed.  Points allowed:  that is a more accurate way to assess a defense, people said.  And while those people may be right, the Packers are now ranked 8th in points allowed, and some of those points, such as the second and last touchdown the Ravens scored last Monday as well as the first and only touchdown the Lions scored on Thanksgiving, were mostly the result of those teams having auspicious field position.  I won’t say this is the best defense in the league, and they have an unfortunate proclivity to disappear for a quarter at a time, but make no mistake about it:  this defense is good.  Damn good.  And if you watch closely, you might just say they’re getting better.

**

Up next for the Packers is a trip to Solider Field, home of the division rival Chicago Bears.  The Packers are clearly a better team than the Bears at this point of the season, but we all know that doesn’t ensure a Packer victory.  The Bears always bring it against the Packers, regardless of either team’s record, and compounding the matter is that the Packers have had their fair share of troubles in Chicago over recent years.  Moreover, the weather will surely play a factor this Sunday, as it did during those recent struggles.  Even more ominous, if that’s possible, is the fact that the entire Packers’ defensive line is nicked up:  Jenkins, Pickett, Jolly, and Raji all missed practice time this week.  All also said they expect to play Sunday, but we’ve heard that before with players.

It appears as though the Packers will need to win at least two of their last four games to secure a playoff spot, and a win against the Bears would go a long way, especially with a home game against the Seahawks, a game the Packers have no business losing.  As a whole, this team appears to have captured the focus they lacked during the first half of the season, and the confidence overall has to be at an all-time high.  Let’s hope we can say the same Sunday night.

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