Bates faces big challenge

Does new defensive coordinator have enough talent to work with?

Most NFL experts say the 2005 Packers should have no trouble scoring points. The reason most analysts are picking the Packers to finish with a less than stellar record this year is due to questions regarding the Pack's defense. On paper, it appears these questions are well founded.

For the third consecutive season, Green Bay has a different defensive coordinator. In 2003, Green Bay's defense was led by Ed Donatell. When the Packers gave up a crucial first down to the Eagles on the infamous 4th and 26 play during the playoffs, Donatell was out and Bob Slowik was named as his replacement.

Slowik promised changes. He wanted the Packer "D" to be more aggressive. He promised lots of blitzes with people rushing the quarterback from every possible direction. Unfortunately, after Mike McKenzie's holdout and subsequent trade, the Packers didn't have strong enough cover corners to handle man-on-man coverage when the blitz didn't get there on time.

After a 1-4 start, Slowik had to make modifications to his system around. The Packers defense stabilized but never forged an identity. It finished ranked 25th in the NFL in pass defense and 27th in average yards allowed per rush. Despite these poor numbers, Green Bay managed to finish the year 10-6 and to win their third consecutive NFC North Division title. But anybody watching the Packers defense knew they were not true contenders because they could not consistently stop opponents from scoring.

The Packers decided that Slowik was not the answer and hired former Dolphins defensive coordinator Jim Bates to run the defense. Bates has a proven track record in Miami and his teams remained in the top 10 in the league in defense in each of his seasons with the Dolphins.

The system is a fairly basic one. Bates likes to use a 4-3 and rely on his defensive lineman to generate a strong pass rush. He prefers speed over size at linebacker and defensive backs who can play a bump and run style man-to-man coverage on receivers.

Bates' hiring was announced on Jan. 31, 2005. The Packers had an entire off-season to bring in defensive players who could fit well in Bates' system. Now, as the season is set to begin, it remains doubtful the right players are in place for the Packers.

In Miami, Bates had top pass rushers like Jason Taylor and Adewale Ogunleye coming from either side with Tim Bowens adding pressure from the inside. Both ends regularly had 10 or more sacks for the Dolphins.

The Packers have only one proven NFL pass rusher, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, but he is not consistent. The Packers other starter at DE, Aaron Kampman, is a workman-like player who gives 100 percent effort but lacks natural pass rush abilities. Kampman has never notched more than 4.5 sacks in an NFL season. Inside, Grady Jackson provides run stuffing ability but is little help with the pass rush. Cletidus Hunt always had the talent to provide pressure on the QB from the inside but after signing his big contract two years ago, his head and perhaps more importantly his heart never seemed to be in the game. Hunt is finally gone. In his place are unproven youngsters like Corey Williams and Donnell Washington. These players may some day become solid NFL starters but right now, they are being asked to step up and play at a level they may not be capable of. The Packers need at least one of them to emerge quickly and for the oft-injured Jackson to remain healthy if they hope to stop the run and pressure the passer. They also need another end or outside linebacker to complement Gbaja-Biamila and provide steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Linebacker seems to be the area where Bates' system has the most talent to work with. Nick Barnett was made to play in a Bates-style defense. At middle linebacker, Barnett can make plays on either side of the field and stay in the thick of things. He should lead the team in tackles if the scheme works well. Zach Thomas, the MLB Bates had in Miami, was the centerpiece of the Dolphins defense. Thomas is undersized and needs help from his linemen to keep blockers off of him. Barnett will need the same. Coaches also have to hope that he takes a big step forward in the learning process after taking a half step back a year ago.

Na'il Diggs is also a good fit for Bates' defense. Speed is the name of Diggs' game but he is not expected to play Sunday against Detroit. Diggs missed most of the pre-season with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. The Pack lacks depth at linebacker so they need a healthy Diggs available ASAP.

The biggest problem the Packers may face defensively is in the secondary. Bates likes his corners to play press coverage. Al Harris excels at press coverage and loves to get physical with a receiver. Although Harris lacks top flight speed for an NFL corner, his physical play and smarts help him to excel. The problem remains on the other corner. There is no Patrick Surtain or Sam Madison for Bates to call upon as he did in Miami.

Last season's top pick, Ahmad Carroll gets called for too many penalties and almost seems to be wrestling with receivers as he follows them down the field. His confidence has waned as a result of the penalties he has accumulated and that's dangerous for a cornerback in this league.

The alternative is Joey Thomas who may have more raw ability than Carroll but is less polished. A nagging injury limited his reps this pre-season and prevented him from truly taking the starting job away from Carroll. One of these two players needs to become a solid NFL starter in a hurry. The raw talent is there but success at the NFL level requires more than just ability. Just ask Cletidus Hunt.

Questions also abound at safety where Mark Roman is coming off a terrible year and rookie Nick Collins is an unproven commodity.

The one thing that could save the Packers defense is this: turnovers. In 2004, the Packers were 31st in the league in forcing turnovers. In 16 games, the Packers picked off only eight passes and half of those were intercepted by the departed Darren Sharper. Fumble recoveries were also hard to come by. If the Packers can just get back to the middle of the pack in forcing turnovers, the defense might just be good enough to get the Packers into the playoffs.

The unfortunate problem appears to be this: The Packers have the offense of a true contender, one as good as any in the NFL. They have a 35-year-old quarterback who needs to win sooner rather than later. Yet their defense is rebuilding for the third year in a row and appears to be mediocre at best.

Bates has a defensive system that has proven successful in the NFL. But any system needs talent to make it go. The 2005 Green Bay Packers may test the limits of Bates' talent as a defensive coordinator. Packers fans just have to hope he is equal to the challenge.

Note: Brad Kurtzberg is a freelance writer from Melville, N.Y. E-mail him at sealshockey@aol.com.


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