Yep, times have been better in Titletown. But it's the frustration of what this 2003 team could and should be that is most maddening. An optimist might say that Green Bay is a few lucky bounces away from 5-2. But I say luck is the residue of skill. And there hasn't always been the level of skill on display that you'd expect from this team. A pessimist's view would be that the Packers have two wins over two terrible teams (Detroit and Chicago) and beat a Seattle team that wasn't really that good (and just lost to the aforementioned Bengals). That's off the mark, as well. Green Bay didn't just eek out wins over their division rivals, they deconstructed them. And in an emotional game against a red-hot Seattle team, Green Bay executed in every facet of the game to send their former coach back to the Pacific Northwest with a loss.
Why is Green Bay 3-4? That's the million-dollar question. Judging by their off season, there was reason to believe that not only would Green Bay have another successful regular season, but they would improve on 2002's first round playoff exit. They upgraded their linebacking corp., seemingly improved the secondary and re-signed two young, emerging stars on their defensive line. They got back their big free agent signing from a year ago at defensive end and their injured offensive tackles were fully recovered and ready to go. Brett Favre was back. That alone should be worth eight wins. A young group of receivers was maturing and the team inked another Pro Bowler at tight end. They also hired a new special team's coach determined to turn that unit around. Sounded like 11 wins to me.
Then the season started.
On offense, Favre has been what you‘ve come to expect. He overcame a horrible season opener against the Vikings and has settled in with a league-leading 13 touchdowns after seven weeks. And while his interceptions are up, his passer rating is, too. After a talk with Offensive Coordinator Tom Rossley following the disaster in the desert, there's been more play action and rollouts that allow Favre to work his magic. He's also been receiving superb protection from the same offensive line that's blasting open holes for Ahman Green in the running game. But the longest pass play of the season is a 36-yarder to Wesley Walls and Green, not a receiver, is his leading pass catcher. That's been part of the problem.
Green is having one of the best seasons of any running back in the league and any running back to ever wear a Packers uniform, but his curse is the fumble. There's never a good time for them, but overtime against Kansas City and on the road in St. Louis were especially devastating. Can Mike Sherman get a running back that craves contact and thrives on getting the extra yards to protect the ball by going down early? And if he does, will it affect the success Green has when he hangs on to the pigskin? We're about to find out.
The real problems are on defense. After doling out big bucks to end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and tackle Cletidus Hunt, not to mention nose tackle Gil Brown and last-years bank-buster Joe Johnson, the defense is 29th in yards allowed and the ranked 29th in sack percentage. Fifteen players in the league have more sacks than the 4.5 the defensive line has as a unit. Darren Sharper and Mike McKenzie might be good in the secondary, but when a quarterback has four and five seconds to find an open receiver, it makes for a long day. KGB leads the team with three sacks, but he's nowhere close to reaching the 12 and 13.5 he's posted the previous two seasons. Without anyone else applying pressure, he's been the victim of constant double teams.
Linebacker Nick Barnett has been the highlight of this much maligned defense so far. The rookie first round pick has exceeded all expectations showing a blend of speed, athleticism and instincts. Aside from Sharper, he has been the defenses only other consistent playmaker. You can only hope whatever Barnett's got going becomes contagious in the second half of the season.
While the special teams haven't been extra special, John Bonamego's group has showed some creativity and passion. The coverage units are top shelf and they got their first block in six years (and two blocks for the first time in who knows how long). Antonio Chatman is a serviceable returner -- especially on punts, but until he breaks one (as the recently released Reggie Swinton just did for Detroit), Green Bay will continue to look for ways to get more out him. Kicker Ryan Longwell hasn't missed and punter Josh Bidwell has been solid.
Of course, a loss at Minnesota this Sunday, means Green Bay will need to win six of their final eight games to salvage a winning record. How do they do that? There's no easy solution, but the most important thing they can do is to get more pressure on the opposing quarterback. That means going up and down the roster and finding someone -- anyone -- who can get in the grill of the guy with the ball. That could be 6-foot-7, 340 pound Terdell Sands, just promoted from the practice squad, linebacker Torrance Marshall, or speed rushers like Marcus Wilkens and Steve Josue. But it's time to find out.
That's a lot of pressure on Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell. But finding the teams missing pass rush could go a long way in recovering this teams identity. At the very least, it would be a welcome first step.
(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 every Thursday.)