Already lacking quality depth in the defensive backfield, the Packers were dealt a major blow when rookie strong safety Morgan Burnett tore his ACL against Detroit and was lost for the year. The third-round pick out of Georgia Tech was just starting to hit his stride after being named the starter by default as much as anything when Bigby reinjured his ankle prior to training camp and underwent surgery on Aug. 6. It's speculative to say Burnett would've beaten out Bigby outright, but he may have been given the chance at some point. Now, his season is finished after notching 15 tackles and an interception through four games.
Harris has been out of the lineup since suffering a devastating knee injury in November against San Francisco. If anyone can make it back, it's him, but at 35, he's not a lock to return to his Pro Bowl form. In his place, nickel back Tramon Williams has stepped up and arguably been the team's most consistent defensive back. That's saying something when reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson is playing opposite you and just returned an interception 48 yards for a score on Sunday. But it's not a stretch. Still, Williams in the starting lineup results in a nasty little trickle-down effect that feels a lot like what we saw last January in the desert in a playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
With Harris out, Williams starts and a player that would normally be your dime — or sixth defensive back — now finds himself on the field for at least 80 percent of the snaps in the nickel. That player had been Sam Shields, an undrafted rookie from the University of Miami, who despite his speed and athleticism had only played one year of defense in college after converting from receiver. That's impressive from Shields' point of view, but not a real ringing endorsement for the corners he beat out, like Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee. So, not only is your nickel back a player who wouldn't even be your dime back in a best-case scenario, but your dime back is a player who wouldn't even get snaps from scrimmage — if he were active at all. Stop me if this is sounding familiar.
Nine months ago, Green Bay was without the services of Harris, Bigby exited with a hamstring injury and Green Bay got carved up like a kid's pumpkin on Halloween by Kurt Warner. General manager Ted Thompson added Burnett in the draft but did almost nothing else to bolster one of their thinnest areas in terms of quality depth. In defense of Bush, he's a hard-working, well-liked player who had a decent game against Detroit with five tackles, a near-interception and a key pass breakup on third-and-9 that forced the Lions to settle for a 49-yard field goal. But Green Bay gave up 331 yards through the air to backup quarterback Shaun Hill, who nearly dinked and dunked his team to a 'W.' Nobody should be too excited or too encouraged by that.
The more immediate issue, though, is the loss of Burnett. No one is sure how long it will take Bigby to get up to speed once he returns. In the meantime, Green Bay's options include giving Charlie Peprah his second career start this week at Washington coming off a quad injury of his own, calling up practice squad player Anthony Levine or turning to special teams maven Derrick Martin, who can get you some reps in a pinch and had a pick in the end zone at Chicago, but likely isn't a long-term answer.
The team could go with its five-linebacker "Big Okie" package, in which Brandon Chillar replaces a safety, but Chillar's got issues of his own with a banged up shoulder that had him inactive for the Detroit contest and almost certainly Sunday's game, as well. This will be a game in which Dom Capers earns his paycheck, given what he's got to work with. We'll also see if Thompson — a GM who drafts as well as anyone but who's disdain of free agency can handcuff the team — is proven right in assessing the talents of his own roster.
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At least Green Bay has John Kuhn. The pseudo fullback-halfback has been a bulldozer stuck in high gear. Now, he's not going to rip off a 40-yard run, but he's an absolute grinder who showed that, aside from the 1-yard dives and occasional goal-line catches, he's able to make one cut and blast through the line when needed. During the final 6:32 against Detroit, Kuhn got the rock seven times and responded with 34 yards and three first downs to lock down the win. He deserves more opportunities from the halfback spot as a result of his production and Jackson's lack of it. But while Kuhn is the type of blue-collar player every team needs, and fans love to root for, you can't root him into having 4.5 speed and being elusive, and he won't make anyone forget about Grant. As for Dimitri Nance, who even knows? With only two carries for 6 yards against Buffalo, there's nothing to even say. Is this guy still on the team?
The Packers also chose not to part with a third-round pick in next year's draft for former No. 1 pick Marshawn Lynch, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in Buffalo who could've instantly added juice to their stalling ground game. Not a big surprise there. It seemed like a fair asking price to get a proven rusher, but that's not Thompson's style. Instead, his former right-hand man, John Schneider, the Seahawks' new GM, was more than happy to pick up Lynch. And as Green Bay seems willing to make a Super Bowl run without a proven runner, the Minnesota Vikings were more than happy to part with a draft pick to bring back Randy Moss, in hopes of putting their championship dreams back on track. Now that's what you call adding insult to injury.
Which eventually brings us back to Starks, who in a twist of irony, played at the University of Buffalo. Starks had 3,140 yards and 34 touchdowns in three years for the Bulls, while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Those numbers come with a grain of salt considering they came in the MAC, but Starks likely would've gone higher than the sixth round if not for shoulder injury that sidelined him for his final year of college. Green Bay had high hopes that he could lighten the load for Grant before a hamstring injury sustained in May's OTAs put him on the PUP list. Now, don't expect Starks to burst onto the scene like Grant did in the back half of 2007, but he has the potential to contribute quality carries that make "running back by committee" something fans can buy into.
But for the next two weeks, it's up to Bush and Peprah or Martin in the defensive backfield and Kuhn and Jackson in the offensive backfield to show us they've got what it takes. Let's hope it's enough.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.