Season preview: Defense goes on offensive

When last seen in a meaningful game situation, the Packers' defense was allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to convert an impossible fourth-and-26 situation. The Eagles turned that miraculous — or disgusting, depending on who you cheer for — play into the tying points to force overtime.

The Eagles, as if anyone needed reminding, went on to win that game. Packers coach/general manager Mike Sherman went on to fire defensive coordinator Ed Donatell in hopes that shakeup would push the Packers over the hump and back to the Super Bowl.

Cornerback Mike McKenzie threw a monkey wrench into everything, however, with his holdout. McKenzie didn't have a sudden change of heart Saturday, meaning he has forfeited the first of his $161,700 game checks.

With McKenzie and Donatell gone and Michael Hawthorne/Ahmad Carroll and Bob Slowik in, the Packers' defense enters Monday night's game at NFC champion Carolina as a Hitchcockian mystery.

What is known is Slowik plans on blitzing. Early and often and all points in between. What is unknown is whether the blitzing will work. It worked in the preseason, but the regular season is a far cry from the preseason. While Slowik hardly played all of his cards in the August games, the Packers' preseason opponents prepared minimally — if at all — for the onslaught of rushers.

"We debated whether to do nothing or everything in the preseason, and we feel like we have to get better," Sherman said after the blitz-a-thon against the Saints in the second preseason game.

If Slowik's aggressive schemes work, then the Packers have all the makings of being one of the league's better defenses. For the first time since LeRoy Butler was forced to retire, former Pro Bowler Darren Sharper will be playing with a steady, sure-tackling safety. While the signing didn't make big waves, the addition of Mark Roman could be just what the Packers' defensive doctor ordered. Roman is everything Antuan Edwards and Marques Anderson were not. Roman can run, cover and tackle. Edwards could run and cover but he couldn't tackle. Anderson could hit hard but he wasn't a sure tackler, nor could he cover.

Roman's play is vital. If he can successfully be the last line of defense, then Slowik can unleash Sharper, his top defensive playmaker. Sharper is the Packers' best blitzer, and he has a knack for making big plays whether he's at the line of scrimmage or dropping back into coverage. If Roman can't handle the position, then a large chunk of Slowik's playbook can be put in the trash.

McKenzie's vow to never again play for the Packers, at least on paper, puts a huge chink in the Packers' armor. McKenzie may not be a Pro Bowl player, but the Packers could rest easy knowing he had his side of the field under control.

In his place on Monday night will be veteran Michael Hawthorne. Hawthorne was a solid cover man in the Packers' dime defense last season, but now he's being asked to cover full time against starting-caliber receivers. The reviews in preseason weren't good. Hawthorne wasn't physical enough to stop the underneath patterns and he wasn't fast enough to stop the deep routes.

The alternative to Hawthorne is Carroll, the Packers' first-round pick. Carroll was a bright spot in the final two preseason games, especially the finale at Tennessee. Against the Titans, however, he was covering Eddie Berlin, who was the starter that night but is only their No. 4 receiver. Whether Carroll can handle a starting assignment against some of the league's better receivers is a great unknown. Making it even a bigger unknown is whether Carroll can handle anyone solo, because if the Packers are going to blitz, he's not going to get any help. If the blitzes work, however, then Carroll won't be asked to cover his man for long.

More questions can be found along the defensive line. The 260-pound Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila proved a sturdy starter at defensive end, but he lost much of his pass-rushing prowess as the season wore on.

At defensive tackle, Grady Jackson was a huge addition at midseason last year, in more ways than one. Before Jackson arrived, the Packers allowed 117 yards per game on the ground. After he arrived, the Packers allowed 95 rushing yards per game. Jackson showed up at training camp out of shape, though, and was held out of about half the practices to rest his aching knees. His ability to make it through an entire season is yet another mystery.

Fellow defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt always seems to be a question mark. When he's good, he's really good. When he's not good, he's practically invisible. He needs Jackson's presence more than anyone. Without Jackson, Hunt is the focus of the double teams up front. With Jackson, Hunt often gets to go one-on-one.

The only sure thing up front is Aaron Kampman, which is amazing considering he was the big question mark last season after Joe Johnson disappeared with another season-ending injury. The hard-working, intelligent Kampman doesn't do anything great, but he does everything well.

The depth is perhaps the best in Sherman's tenure, with second-year players Kenny Peterson and James Lee and rookie Corey Williams emerging during training camp and the preseason. R-Kal Truluck, who the Packers obtained on cutdown day from Kansas City for fifth- and sixth-round draft picks, is the latest in a revolving door of defensive ends signed to add some juice to the pass rush.

The linebackers aren't great but they are well above average. Second-year player Nick Barnett has the motor, the willingness to learn and the athleticism to be a Pro Bowler for the next decade. As a rookie, Barnett never appeared in over his head. With a year of experience under his belt, the sky's the limit. He's flanked by the solid-if-unspectacular Hannibal Navies and the tough, hard-hitting Na'il Diggs.

With nine of 11 starters back, the nucleus is there to be a good defense. Maybe not great, but with the offense primed for another high-scoring season, they don't have to be the 1985 Bears. It all comes down to whether the blitzes hit home and the corners can cover. For now, optimism reigns.

"You love to play this. Defense is all about playing aggressive," Sharper said. "Anytime you get a chance to hit a quarterback and try to throw his timing off and knock around some receivers, guys on the defensive side of the ball love to do that."<


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