Most experts in the football world felt that the defensive line was Green Bay's biggest area of need heading into the draft, including this scribe. The Packers in 2004 allowed opposing quarterbacks to combine for a whopping 99.1 passer rating. There were many times last year when QB's would sit back in the pocket and eat a sandwich before completing a pass to a receiver.
Surely, the Packers would select someone to create a little more havoc in the trenches, right? That wasn't the case during the two-day draft, unless Texas A&M's Mike Montgomery proves in training camp he should have been selected much higher in the draft than the sixth round. While it was surprising to see Aaron Rodgers fall into Green Bay's lap with the 24th overall selection, defensive coordinator Jim Bates heaped another surprise from the media auditorium podium on draft day.
"Overall we really feel good about the defensive line," Bates said.
What? Was there an open bar in the Packers draft room? Bates went on … "I've never been in a situation where we've had as much depth in the 15 years that I've been in the league. People say it wasn't a very good defensive line. I disagree. The ability is there. We will get that ability level up and you will see vast improvement in the defensive line. There's no doubt in our minds. We've got some guys who can rush the passer. We've got some guys who can physically play the run. I feel really comfortable with the defensive line starting out."
Say what? This is the same line and part of the same defense that allowed more passing touchdowns (33) than any team in franchise history. It was the lowest-ranked passing defense of any Packers team since the NFL expanded to 26 teams in 1970.
Still, Bates insists he has seen enough in the team's "opportunity" or practice sessions in March and April, and on film. Prior to the draft, he and his staff met with general manager Ted Thompson and told him that the current group linemen will step to a new plateau in 2005.
Bates also began installing a new defensive scheme during the team's post-draft mini-camp. It's a 4-3 scheme, but with a few variations compared to last season. Part of that scheme will have the two tackles playing the gaps and the defensive ends lined up wider. In previous seasons, the Packers had a tackle over the center while the other tackle, or three-technique, would try to fire through a gap to the quarterback. The ends also were lined up closer to the tackles.
In Bates' scheme, the linebackers are smaller, but very quick.
"We just moved (the ends) out there and found we could execute and get our speed linebackers really making plays," Bates said during the mini-camp. "We made everything converge inside. Now it's going to get outside on us (occasionally), you've seen (Miami's) Zach thomas run the alleys. It requires a good (middle) linebacker, which we have in Nick Barnett."
Bates will try to get the most out of underperforming Cletidus Hunt, but if that doesn't happen he has been impressed by Donnell Washington, Corey Williams, James Lee, and Kenny Peterson this off-season.
"A football player, if he's coachable and you get him thinking right mentally, he can play," Bates said. "That's the job of the coaches and that's what we've got to get done. I have all the confidence in the world in getting these guys ready to play."
Bypassing a top defensive lineman for a QB in the draft that may not play for a few years didn't exactly fill Green Bay's biggest need, but maybe Bates is on to something.
Bates says the pass rushers are already on the team and will thrive in his "match-up" scheme. If Bates sticks to what made him successful in Miami, he'll rush just four linemen most of the time and rely on quicker linebackers and defensive backs to cover receivers.
"Pass rush is going to be fine. Pass rush is going to be fine," Bates insists.
Bates, to his credit, is putting his reputation as a teacher and motivator on the line. In an indirect way, he is saying that he'll get more out of the defensive line than ex-defensive coordinator Bob Slowik and ex-defensive line coach Jethro Franklin ever thought possible.
"Work them, and get their attitude right," Bates said. "We put it on James Lee to lose weight. He's down to 325, working hard every single day. Donnell (Washington) is down to 320 and is fit as a bull. There conditioning has improved over the last five weeks. … Those are good signs."
Fortunately, Bates is a lot like the late Fritz Shurmur. You remember Shurmur, the wiley veteran defensive coordinator who orchestrated one of the Green Bay Packers' best defenses in the mid-1990s as the Packers went to three straight NFC title games, and two straight Super Bowls. He was a confident coach, and Bates is the same way. He is very animated during practices and will get in a player's face when he screws up, or does something well.
Shurmur had a fire in his belly that was always stoked. His players respected him and that usually translated to success on the field. Bates, by all appearances from the post-draft mini-camp, seems just as fired up to take a group of linemen and lead them to reach new heights, or least opposing quarterbacks a little more often.
Bates is putting his reputation as a coach and motivator on the line. He is taking on all the pressure. If he succeeds, he'll prove that the Packers' defense was under-coached last year. If he doesn't, he'll have a lot of explaining to do. And the Packers will wish they had taken a defensive lineman earlier in the draft.