Hot Read: Johnson's injury a blessing and a curse

Fate has done what the Green Bay Packers couldn't. It removed an unproductive player from their starting line-up. The timing, however, could have been a little better.<p>

In the first quarter of last Sunday's 40-34 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, defensive end Joe Johnson suffered a tear of the right quadriceps tendon, just above the knee cap. While the injury officially ended Johnson's season and possibly his career in Green Bay, it's hard to tell when - or if - either of those ever actually started.

Through six games, Johnson ranked 13th on the defense with just eight tackles. That's 14 less then Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who plays opposite Johnson, 11 less than tackle Cletidus Hunt and only two more than nose tackle Gilbert Brown, who's been playing all season with a torn biceps muscle. Johnson has been the poster boy for a highly paid defensive line that has failed to provide a pass rush or live up to the high expectations everyone had at the beginning of the season.

That's not what Green Bay had in mind when they inked Johnson to a six-year, $33 million deal with a $6.5 million signing bonus prior to the 2002 season. This was a player who had 131 tackles and 21 sacks in the previous two years with the New Orleans Saints and was considered one of the big catches in free agency that year. This was a leader and defensive co-captain, who after missing the 1999 season with a knee injury, came back with 12 sacks the following season to be named the NFL's ‘Comeback Player of the Year.'

Green Bay would've been thrilled with anything remotely close to that performance after Johnson missed 11 games last season when he ruptured his triceps. In the five games he played in, he had 17 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a recovery. While that's not a Pro Bowl pace by any stretch of the imagination, it's similar numbers to what KGB is putting up this year and, at the very least, a flickering of the talent he once possessed.

But it never came back this year. Johnson missed most of training camp with rib and thigh injuries. He battled a case of gout and another triceps injury prior to the Chiefs game. National Football League politics dictate that veteran players making the kind of money Johnson is making don't get benched. And general manager's don't typically like to admit they threw away almost $40 million on a player who's being out played by the far less expensive and equally less heralded backups. When the coach and general manager are one in the same, you can pretty much connect the dots.

Free agent Chukie Nwokorie has easily outperformed Johnson this season and there's little doubt that second-year pro Aaron Kampman could be making a more meaningful contribution, as well, if he were healthy. The problem is, Nwokorie and Kampman are battling shoulder and ankle injuries, respectively, and their availability for this Sunday's game at St. Louis is still in doubt. Thin and defensive line aren't words that share space in the same sentence too often, but it's possible that the Green Bay Packers front four will apply even less pressure to the quarterback and be more anemic against the run than they've been the previous six weeks.

Second-string nose tackle Rod Walker filled in for Johnson against the Chiefs and may do so again against the Rams. The team recently re-signed big man Larry Smith and is looking at former first-round flop Jamal Reynolds or rookie tackle Kenny Peterson as possible replacements. Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell is even working with linebackers Torrance Marshall and Marcus Wilkens, two speedy, athletic defenders, in an effort to somehow manufacture a pass rush. Practice squad player Terdell Sands, a 6-foot-7, 340 pound Sasquatch who opened some eyes in training camp, was promoted to the active roster on Wednesday.

Perhaps Donatell can take a page out of a former Packer defensive coordinator's playbook. The late Fritz Shurmur, who oversaw one of the Packers greatest defenses ever, was a mastermind even before he took up residence in Titletown. In 1989, he led a L.A. Rams defense that was riddled with injuries on the defensive line. The master innovator created the 2-5 Eagle Defense that used two defensive tackles and five linebackers as a base package. The result? That unit gave up only three 100-yard rushing performances, led the league in sacks and helped the Rams win two postseason contests.

Nothing the defensive line has done so far would indicate it is capable of that kind of turnaround. Chiefs' quarterback Trent Green passed for 400 yards last Sunday. Not only wasn't he sacked, but he was rarely pressured, having as much as five seconds to find an open receiver at times. No one on the Packers front four is living up to their paychecks and no one seems to be sure why that is, but with Johnson out, the team is now forced to find a solution to their pass rush woes.

If they find the success that has thus far proved as elusive as an opposing quarterback, then Johnson's injury might be his biggest contribution to the Packers yet.

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


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