Commentary: Can this defense be saved?

An embarrassing loss in the Monday Night spotlight did nothing to help the Packers answer the question that has been nagging them since the home loss to the Bears: What's wrong?<p> Heading into a North Division clash at Detroit, the team has to face an even tougher followup: Can it be fixed?<P>

Before passing judgement on the entire '04 season, let's tackle the first question as it applies to the Packer defense (although in this case "tackle" isn't the best choice of words).

What's wrong? Start with the hole in the middle of the defense. The injury to DT Grady Jackson was the only bad news to come out of the team's superb performance in the season-opening win over the Panthers. Since then, the Packers are still waiting for their next bout of optimism. The run-stuffing nose tackle dislocated his left kneecap early in the Week 1 game, but his original prognosis was a quick return in 3-4 weeks. Plus, the Packers could turn to James Lee, who was coming on strong after an injury ruined his rookie campaign.

Fast-forward a couple weeks - the injury news went from bad to bleak. Coach Mike Sherman said recently that Jackson is still at least 3 weeks away from a return. With the bye week on the horizon, it's likely that Jackson won't be back until the Week 10 home date vs. Minnesota.

As for Lee, he went down with torn cartilage in his knee in the Sept. 19 loss to the Bears. He continues to recover from arthroscopic surgery and could be back in two weeks. That leaves Cletidus Hunt to go it alone at nose tackle with the inexperienced and underwhelming Kenny Peterson and Cullen Jenkins rounding out the defensive tackle spot. KGB and R-Kal Truluck have been serviceable at defensive end and Nick Barnett looks like one of the only guys with his head in the game.

That's talent spread mighty thin in spots where the Packers can ill afford it. The result? Opponents are averaging more than 5 yards per rush for an average ground game of about 150 yards. Take out Week 1 when the team who took the field bore no resemblance to the current crew and the Packers have allowed an average of 178 rushing yards in their four losses.

Behind that pourous front line is a secondary that could make a grown man cry - and probably has. Last year the secondary was a question mark for the Packers. This year, it's an exclamation point ... as in terrible! Minor injuries have taken a costly half-step away from veterans Darren Sharper and Al Harris, free agent prize Mark Roman and overworked backup Michael Hawthorne. Rookie Ahmad Carroll is likewise slowed by a groin injury. Bhawoh Jue just is in way over his head. Joey Thomas is a disturbing non-factor.

That leaves Mike McKenzie. If you're the finger pointing type - and believe me, I'm not above it - ex-No. 34 would be a suitable target. He brought controversy where none existed, created a contract hassle where none was warranted, and introduced legions of sports fans to the term "recalcitrant," which was used so many times it seemed to be a new position: RCB - recalcitrant cornerback. You know, like strong safety. Worst of all, McKenzie crowned himself coach and GM by his damaging response to a personnel matter. Should assistant DBs coach Lionel Washington have been promoted instead of Bob Slowik? Right now it looks like the halftime drum major could launch a scheme that would be as effective as Slowik's, but we'll all show up to work tomorrow no matter what our opinion may be. What would happen in the real world if a rank-and-file employee sabotaged a company because they didn't like a middle-management personnel move? Would they get a job with the New Orleans Saints?

Slowik's promotion should not have been cause for McKenzie to betray his teammates. However, the new DC's defensive schemes have caused others to walk: Green Bay fans cruised out of Lambeau by the thousands last Monday night, and Chris Brown, Tiki Barber and Peyton Manning walked all over the Pack. How many times will the Packers fail in their understaffed blitz before that idea is put to rest? Injuries have taken many weapons out of Slowik's arsenal, but he continues to game plan as if he's got plenty of ammo.

Can this defense be saved?

In many ways, no. Only time can tend to the injuries and inexperience. McKenzie's selfish decision to trash a fruitful Packer career cannot be reversed. And only Bob Slowik and the football gods know what he could possibly be thinking.

One aspect of the total failure of the defense can and must be fixed in time for their next stop in Detroit. This team is sloppy. They don't finish. They don't tackle. They fail to capitalize on opportunities, they commit foolish penalties, and they don't have enough pride to prohibit a 200-yard rushing game. In the past four weeks we've witnessed a season's worth of missed tackles. Pressures need to become sacks, near-interceptions need to become takeaways and opponents' second efforts must be stoped.

Next up: What's wrong with the Packer offense, or "In Search of.... Ahman Green."

Packer Report Top Stories