Breaking down the defense

In a season straight out of the Clint Eastwood movie "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," the defense was accountable for most of the bad and ugly in 2004.

The actors that made up one of the worst defenses in franchise history generally will be back for the sequel. With less than two weeks to the start of training camp, here is a breakdown of the defense, with positions listed from weakest to strongest.

1. Defensive end: Aaron Kampman is coming off his best season and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, while not a consistent presence in the grill of opposing quarterbacks, is a rare player who is good for double-figures in sacks every season. Listed as second-teamers on the depth chart are veterans R-Kal Truluck backing up KGB and Cullen Jenkins and Kenny Peterson vying to be the No. 2 behind Kampman. Clearly, depth is lacking — Truluck was unimpressive last season, Jenkins showed some flashes at defensive tackle and Peterson has been on the game-day inactive list in nearly half of the games over his two seasons — but that's no different than the rest of the league. The only addition to the mix is sixth-round pick Michael Montgomery, who isn't big enough yet to be a consistent force in the run game and wasn't a big-time pass rusher at Texas A&M.

2. Linebacker: Nick Barnett is the unquestioned starter in the middle while Na'il Diggs also will start, though the Packers aren't sure if he'll line up on the strong or weak side. Barnett's lack of size can be a problem in the run game, but new coordinator Jim Bates crafted stellar defenses in Miami with equally small Zach Thomas in the middle. The battle is between holdover Hannibal Navies and former Arizona Cardinal Ray Thompson. If Navies keeps his starting job, Diggs will be back on the weak side. If Thompson shows he's an impact player, he'll line up on the weak side and Diggs will swing over to the strong side. Regardless of who starts, the trio must make a lot more big plays than a year ago. Barnett, Navies and Diggs made plenty of tackles, but interceptions and fumbles were few and far between. With the Packers having given up on Torrance Marshall, Paris Lenon is the only experienced reserve. Depth could be better, however, with rookies Kurt Campbell and Brady Poppinga adding desperately needed athleticism. Campbell, however, is a long shot to make the team. He spent most of his college career at defensive back.

3. Cornerback: That this position ranks ahead of safety and defensive tackle shows just how bad the Packers are at those two positions. Green Bay should be better in this area than a year ago, however, simply due to experience and a change in defensive scheme. The Packers have ditched their blitz-happy approach, which means the cornerbacks will get more help from the safeties. A year of polish to second-year players Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas won't hurt, either. In perhaps the most stunning development of the off-season, Thomas, not Carroll, will open training camp as the starting left cornerback. Whoever starts, the competition between the duo should bring out their best. Al Harris was penalized a lot but also set a team record with 28 passes defensed. The Packers are high on rookies Patrick Dendy and Mike Hawkins. If only one emerges, the Packers will have four cornerbacks they can feel somewhat comfortable with.

4. Defensive tackle: Grady Jackson's holdout will hurt in the short term, but at some point one side or the other will give in and Jackson will be back. Jackson is a major difference maker. With him, the Packers are 15-4. Without him, they are 2-4. The Packers only wish Cletidus Hunt was that kind of difference maker. The disillusionment with Hunt has the Packers on the brink of changing starters. Impressive second-year player Corey Williams, whose work ethic is the antithesis of Hunt's, enters training camp as the co-No. 1 with Hunt at defensive tackle. Depth is a major issue, however. If Hunt doesn't start, the Packers might simply cut him. Backing up Jackson is Donnell Washington, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve and wasn't impressive during last year's training camp. James Lee, last year's top backup to Jackson, opens training camp as the third-teamer. In the mix behind Hunt and Williams is Colin Cole, who was inactive for most of last season.

5. Safety: What a mess. The Packers cut Darren Sharper, and then watched him sign with rival Minnesota. Sharper made some big plays but made many more big mistakes. Still, he's a better player than the two castoffs who will fight to replace him at free safety: Arturo Freeman and Earl Little. Freeman played for Bates in Miami so he's probably got the upper hand, but his resume is less than stellar. Little picked off 15 passes from 2001-03 in Cleveland but he's wildly inconsistent and hardly an enforcer in the run game. At strong safety, Mark Roman returns, but he is coming off a miserable first season in Green Bay. Perhaps the rookies can help. Second-round pick Nick Collins will challenge Roman. He showed a nose for the football during the minicamps. Fourth-rounder Marviel Underwood could be the long-term solution at strong safety.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com


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