Packers defense: Change for the worse

When Packers coach and general manager Mike Sherman looked back at the 2003 season and ahead to 2004, he came to the determination that his defense is what was holding the franchise back from a return to the Super Bowl.

So Ed Donatell was handed a pink slip and Bob Slowik was promoted to defensive coordinator. He used his first-round draft choice on cornerback Ahmad Carroll and wound up picking defenders with four of his six draft picks. He spent his meager salary cap space by signing safety Mark Roman. He spent training camp auditioning one pass rusher after another.

Brett Favre proclaimed this season as Super Bowl or bust. Through three-quarters of this season, all of Sherman's tinkering has gone bust.

Slowik's master plan was blown to pieces when Mike McKenzie decided he needed a change of scenery. Slowik wanted to blitz but didn't have the players to cover one-on-one. When Slowik cut back on the blitzes, the Packers didn't have the players up front to pressure the quarterback, so his secondary was torn to shreds, anyway.

The play of the rookie class has been sketchy, at best. Carroll has shown some potential but too often has resorted to the clutching and grabbing of a rookie who is trying to find his way in the league. Third-round cornerback Joey Thomas has the ability but hasn't grasped the schemes. Third-round defensive tackle Donnell Washington had an undistinguished training camp before being put on season-ending injured reserve. Seventh-round defensive lineman Corey Williams has been a body.

It all adds up to a defense that has the 2004 edition of the Packers further from the Super Bowl than at the same point a year ago.

While Donatell was the fall guy for the fourth-and-26 disaster in last year's playoff game at Philadelphia, his defense last season was decent by any standard.

The most important statistic is points allowed, and Donatell's Packers allowed 19.2 points per game, which ranked 11th in the league. Slowik's Packers are allowing 24.5 points per game, which ranks 25th.

Most of the blame falls on a pass defense that has been riddled throughout the season, most notably in recent games against some of the league's better cornerbacks: the Vikings' Daunte Culpepper, the Rams' Marc Bulger and the Eagles' Donovan McNabb.

Donatell subscribed to a bend-but-don't break philosophy, and it worked pretty well. The Packers under Donatell forced a league-leading 116 turnovers over his last three years. That's how the Packers could rank 17th in total defense (317.8 yards per game) last year yet finish 11th in points. Last year's Packers forced 32 turnovers, which ranked 10th in the NFL.

Slowik's Packers, with the recent exception of the Rams game, have been bending and breaking. The Packers rank 27th in total defense (361.6 yards per game) and 25th in scoring. Slowik's Packers are tied for 29th in turnovers forced, on pace to get just 16 takeaways.

That's half as many as a year ago. The big difference has been interceptions, where Donatell's defenses were traditionally strong. The Packers intercepted 21 passes last season. This year, they are on pace to pick off just nine passes, which would be the fewest in the long and storied history of the franchise (see related story). Meanwhile, their five fumble recoveries rank 30th in the league and their 12 forced turnovers check in at a tie for 29th.

It is possible to win games without forcing a lot of turnovers, though those teams are the exceptions rather than the rules. Of teams in the bottom third of the league in forcing turnovers, only Jacksonville and Denver are playoff contenders — and they are fringe contenders. Of teams ranking in the top third of the league in turnovers, seven are securely in the playoffs. For all the Colts' many defensive shortcomings, they have forced a league-best 31 turnovers.

If you can't force turnovers, you had better play air-tight defense. That obviously hasn't been the case. The Packers' pass defense has been so bad that the Eagles — and before that, the Colts — hardly bothered running the ball.

The Packers' pass defense ranks 30th in the league by allowing 257.7 yards per game. In the last two games, against Bulger and McNabb, the Packers have allowed more than 900 yards through the air. Bulger threw for the most yards ever against a Packers defense, only to have McNabb smash that mark six days later despite sitting out the final minutes.

Beyond the yardage, other numbers are equally horrifying. The Packers stand next-to-last in touchdown passes allowed with 28 and are on pace to smash the team record. Only two quarterbacks have thrown five touchdown passes in a half in the last decade, and both came against the Packers: Peyton Manning and McNabb. While not a single quarterback in the league over the last 2,500 or so games has thrown five TD passes in a half, the Packers have managed to do it twice in 12 games.

While the Packers allowed a 55.3 completion percentage under Donatell a year ago, these Packers are allowing opposing quarterbacks to connect on 62.3 percent of their passes. Receivers are averaging 12.5 yards per completion, up a yard and a half over last year. The difference? The Packers have allowed 53 completions of 20 yards or longer already compared to just 48 for all of last season.

The Packers allowed only 18 touchdown passes all of last season and 28 total touchdowns. These Packers are on pace to yield 46 touchdowns, including 37 through the air.

The problems in the pass defense have neutralized practically every other strength on the team. The offense is at its best when it is running the ball and can then throw it with play-action fakes and bootlegs. Now, the Packers are in a score-every-time mode. The strength of the defense is nose tackle Grady Jackson, but as the Rams and Eagles showed, there's no need to run the ball and test the mountain of a man in the middle.

While a lesser man might be smirking a bit, Donatell has said he feels sympathy toward the Packers because he knows the players so well. Besides, Donatell is sort of busy. He's the coordinator of the Falcons. He has turned the league's worst defense into the 14th-ranked unit. Most importantly, they are 9-3 and may be the only challenger to the Eagles in the NFC.

Something the Packers showed on Sunday that they can only dream of being.

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