Hot Read: Jury still out on revamped ‘D'

The Packers defense has something in common with the stadium it plays in. Like Lambeau Field, the decision was made to update in order to remain competitive, and to renovate and redevelop rather than totally rebuild. But while the newly unveiled facility has been met with rave reviews, Green Bay's defense has not looked anywhere near as impressive.<p>

With four new starters, their isn't a single unit of the defense that lines up the same group of players it did from last year's season opener. The Packers finished the 2002 regular season with the 12th best defense in the league, but they were 21st against the run. At no time were their deficiencies more glaring than their final two games against the Jets and Falcons. Green Bay resembled the butter that the proverbial hot knife cut through and you knew changes were coming.

W. Keith Roerdink

Let's start in the secondary and work our way in. At cornerback, Al Harris was acquired from Philly for a second round pick and replaces Tyrone Williams who left to Atlanta. While Williams may never have been a fan favorite, he was a steady performer at a demanding position. Still, Harris looks like an upgrade. He started the season out with a bang – literally, when he leveled Chiefs quarterback Trent Green in the Hall of Fame game. He also batted away a potential touchdown in that game and has collected a couple interceptions in ensuing contests. Best yet, Harris is a student of the game whose passion and intensity have rubbed off on already-stellar cornerback Mike McKenzie; the team's other dread-locked 'Buffalo Soldier.'

The news is not as promising at safety. While Darren Sharper and his all-pro skills return at free safety, Antuan Edwards has won the starting strong safety job in less-than-convincing fashion.

Bill Maas, the former NFL defensive lineman and current CBS broadcaster said, "If you have three safeties, you don't have any." He was referring to the three man battle for the job between Edwards, second-year pro Marques Anderson and veteran corner Bryant Westbrook. The team was no doubt hoping that Westbrook would win the job and give them a physical presence that Edwards and Anderson lacked. But when Westbrook ruptured his Achilles' tendon at Atlanta, it became a two-man battle.

Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a fight. Anderson looked like the player he was at the end of last season -- out of position, missing tackles -- and not at all like the ball-hawking rookie who began the year picking off passes and running them in for touchdowns. You can only hope he rediscovers his inner playmaker. Edwards, meanwhile, has had moments during the preseason where he looked like a former first round pick. Whether he can do it on a consistent basis remains to be seen.

The linebacking corp has received the kind of intensive makeover normally reserved for some poorly groomed, badly dressed sap on that new "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" show. Hardy Nickerson, last year's starting middle linebacker is officially retired (he unofficially retired around the third game of the season last year). Weakside linebacker Nate Wayne, the team's leading tackler, was let go because he missed too many tackles. Uh... did I mention he was their ‘leading' tackler? And strongside backer Na'il Diggs was moved to the weakside where he'll be in a position to make more plays. Diggs already was coming into his own on the less heralded strongside, where he was second on the team in stops.

New to the mix is rookie middle linebacker Nick Barnett and ex-Carolina Panther Hannibal Navies. Barnett was the first linebacker taken in last April's NFL draft and clearly deserved to be. Fast and instinctive, he looks like he'll be a fixture on the Packers defense for the next decade. Each game he seems to get a little better and the more comfortable he becomes, the more his speed and natural ability can take over.

Navies has been billed as the most athletic of the group, but it's yet to show up on the field. For a guy who shares his name with one of history's great military strategists (not to mention the leader of the A-Team), you'd tend to expect a few more plays out of him. The goal line stand against Carolina was one of the few times Navies' name was called through the first four preseason games.

Arguably, the Packers best linebacker of the preseason has been third-year pro Torrance Marshall, but his four-game drug suspension voided his bid to earn a starting spot.

The defensive line appeared doomed when nose tackle Gilbert Brown tore his biceps in Atlanta. But Brown showed that his heart is by far his strongest muscle when he returned to the starting lineup two games later. How long he can remain there will be one of the biggest keys to the defenses' success in 2003.

Cletidus Hunt lines up next to Brown at the 'eagle' tackle and has been a steady force in the middle. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila remains the hardest working player on the team, and while he remained sack-less early on, expect that trend to end soon.

Joe Johnson is the team's biggest question mark. For their six-year, $33 million investment, Green Bay has a player who did little in five games last year (17 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, one recovery) prior to a season-ending triceps injury and has done nothing this preseason, missing most of training camp with rib and thigh injuries. Lined up at the ‘power end' position, there's no doubt the team would be better served if that money had been around to retain Vonnie Holliday, who now starts in Kansas City.

So is this revamped defense better than the unit that ended the 2002 season? We're about to find out.

(Editor's note: W. Keith Roerdink is a freelance writer from Wausau, Wis. and longtime contributor to the Packer Report. Check out his weekly Hot Read column each Thursday.)

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