Improving defense a key in 2004

The Green Bay Packers' season is complete, so let's look forward to next season and see what needs to happen for the Packers to improve upon this year's 10-6 regular-season record. The offense should retain 10 starters, with free agent to-be left tackle Chad Clifton as the question mark.<p>

Knowing that, there's no question the Packers have to turn to the defensive side of the ball to challenge for the NFC's top record next season. The first place to start is strong safety, which is an oxymoron with this team, since that position has been occupied the last two years by Marques Anderson and Antuan Edwards. Both players stink, plain and simple. Anderson has no clue how to break down and make a tackle. There are so many examples of him missing tackles it's a joke. He takes bad angles and is always late on pass coverage. Meanwhile, Edwards is injury-prone and maybe is a hair better than Anderson, overall.

Green Bay has to use a high draft pick or sign a capable free agent to replace these misfits. If the Packers can solve this problem, it opens Darren Sharper's playbook to do more blitzing and attacking the way he did when LeRoy Butler played alongside him.

Up next is finding a reliable ‘nickel' back. It could be rookie Chris Johnson, who was lost for this past season with an injury during training camp, or Michael Hawthorne. This year's nickel back, Bhawoh Jue, allowed game-winning TD passes against Kansas City and Philadelphia.

Johnson was impressive during training camp, while Hawthorne was a good mid-season addition. It's possible with a full off-season in Green Bay, Hawthorne could be the man.

Up next is the depth at defensive line. The Packers need to find a defensive end who has talent to get to the quarterback and a defensive tackle to provide depth behind Grady Jackson and Cletidus Hunt. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila had 10 of the defensive line's 22 1/2 sacks this season. Hunt was second on the team with four sacks. With so little pressure being applied up front, especially outside, the Packers were forced to blitz at times more than they wanted to.

This is fine when the blitz reaches the quarterback, but it's also a gamble, leaving cornerbacks one-on-one. Defensive end Aaron Kampman (two sacks) did a nice job, replacing Joe Johnson early in the season, when Johnson suffered a season-ending injury, but his pass rush doesn't strike the fear in anybody.

If the Packers can find a pass rusher to share snaps with Kampman, the defense would be better off.

At defensive tackle, the Packers' depth is shallow as a puddle. Right now, all they have is Larry Smith, who becomes a free agent this off-season. Furthermore, Rod Walker will be returning from an injury, while rookie Kenny Peterson never got started this season, mostly because of injury.

Not knowing if Smith will stay and how Walker and Peterson return, the Packers need to cover themselves here. An injury to Hunt or Jackson would clearly limit the play-making ability inside, so upping the talent here is crucial.

Oh, and for those Gilbert Brown fans, forget it. He's done.

The last spot the Packers need to address is linebacker. The trio of Na'il Diggs, Nick Barnett and Hannibal Navies, collectively, played better than expected. Each recorded more than 115 tackles. As long as they remain healthy, the Packers are OK. But the depth here is poor. Torrance Marshall and Paris Lenon are basically special teams players, nothing more.

Green Bay needs to add a capable backup who has a future as a starter. The Marshall Plan didn't work. He's never lived up to the hype which surrounded him when he was named the Orange Bowl MVP in 2001 as Oklahoma won the national title.

This might seem like a lot of work in order for the Packers to move up in the NFC, but consider this: Last off-season the Packers added Barnett, Navies, Chukie Nwokorie and Al Harris, and three were starters. Another off-season like that in 2004 and the Packers will be set.

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