The loss of top playmaker Javon Walker to a season-ending torn ACL in the opener cast some doubt on how effective Brett Favre would be with the other receivers at his disposal. He had seven interceptions, with five touchdown passes, in the first three games.
However, a spectacular fourth-quarter performance in a narrow loss at Carolina in Week 4, a game in which the Packers lost promising rookie receiver Terrence Murphy to a season-ending neck injury, was the start of Favre's dispelling the skepticism that his time had passed. A day before his 36th birthday, his nearly flawless accuracy and three TD throws without an interception sent the previously winless Packers into the bye with an uplifting 52-3 rout of New Orleans. Getting tight end Bubba Franks back from a knee injury that has sidelined him for essentially the last three games will help. Favre first needs to get consistent, top-notch efforts out of underachieving wideout Robert Ferguson, who finally delivered in a big way the last time out.
RUSHING OFFENSE: D
Though players and coaches insisted no finger-pointing was taking place while the team lost its first four contests in mostly lethargic fashion, heaping a good dose of blame on the inept running game would have been warranted. Ahman Green entered the season as the most productive ground gainer in the league since 2000. Yet, he's ranked among its worst thus far in 2005; still seeking his first 100-yard game since mid-November last year. The four-time Pro Bowl honoree missed the last game with knee and thigh injuries and may not be ready for Sunday's tilt at Minnesota. His Week 5 replacement, Najeh Davenport, was resourceful with 54 yards in his first 12 carries but couldn't make it to halftime, suffering a season-ending broken ankle. The early-season injury woes, coupled with blocking breakdowns on a revamped line minus standout guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, have fostered an unusual, unsettling dilemma for an offense traditionally predicated on a robust running attack. The Packers are averaging just 77.8 yards per game.
PASS DEFENSE: B-minus
If the old adage that you're only as good as your last game holds water, then the Packers may have turned the corner prior to going into hibernation for a week.
Veteran cornerback Al Harris led a demonstrative performance by the defense in pass coverage against the Saints with two interceptions, including a 22-yard return for a touchdown that helped ignite the blowout. Middle linebacker Nick Barnett capped the outburst with a 95-yard interception return to the opposite end zone. Such big, game-turning plays were conspicuously absent during the 0-4 start, when missed assignments and coverage breakdowns were in abundance. Second-year cornerback Ahmad Carroll also picked up where he left off last year with four grabbing-related penalties in the opener, then was removed from the starting lineup in the base defense for a game. Aside from a pass-interference infraction in the Week 4 loss at Carolina, Carroll seems to have benefited from the temporary demotion.
The team's pass rush needs improvement, however.
RUSH DEFENSE: A
Without question, this is the biggest positive in an early season dotted by negatives. The Packers were gashed on the ground last year for averages of 117.4 yards per game and 4.6 yards per rush, the latter ranking them sixth from the bottom in the league. Through five games this year, the Packers are fourth from the top in giving up only 3.3 yards per rush. They rank a respectable 13th for rushing yards per game (100.6). Defensive tackle Grady Jackson has held up on his aging knees to anchor the middle of the line, while surrounded by a cast of young players who have been lively and disruptive more often than not. A rotation featuring starters Jackson and Cullen Jenkins, spelled by Colin Cole, Corey Williams and Kenny Peterson, has been effective. The only glitch thus far has been allowing rookie Carnell Williams to run wild in the fourth quarter to seal Tampa Bay's Week 3 victory.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus
Rare breakdowns in the kicking game factored into two losses right off the bat. Punter B.J. Sander, who's also in his first year holding on kicks for Ryan Longwell, bungled the snap on a would-be field-goal try in the season opener at Detroit. Two weeks later, trusted long snapper Rob Davis had a bad snap that resulted in a missed extra-point attempt by Ryan Longwell, which ultimately was the difference in a 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay. Longwell also hooked a manageable field-goal kick later in the game. The mediocre kickoff-return unit was dealt a big blow with the season-ending losses of Murphy and Davenport. The punt-return dimension isn't much better, even with a healthy Antonio Chatman.
Sander, meanwhile, has tumbled toward the bottom of the league rankings by averaging only 41 yards per punt -- he had a 29-yard shank in the last game. The saving grace for special teams has been adequate coverage units, spearheaded by rookie linebacker Brady Poppinga.
The 49-point destruction of New Orleans earned the Packers their first win in a resounding way, yet it surely doesn't erase the preceding 0-4 start. Head coach Mike Sherman and his staff are big proponents of preaching accountability to their players. Consequently, the coaches openly shared in the blame for the highly decorated franchise's worst beginning in 17 years.
Rather than use a litany of injuries, many of them severe, as an excuse, Sherman adjusted on the fly and simplified his game plan for the short-handed offense, which responded favorably in the last game.
Energetic, demanding coordinator Jim Bates, in his first year, has breathed some much-needed life into a previously dormant defense, though it took until the fifth game to finally assert itself by coming up with five of the team's seven takeaways to date. A two-year contract extension signed before the start of the season and first-year GM Ted Thompson's insistence on going with a youth movement notwithstanding, Sherman's job could be on the line if a repeat of last year's comeback from a 1-4 start doesn't materialize. Given the sorry state of the NFC North, it might not take much of a turnaround for the Packers to win another division title and wind up back in the playoffs.