Mid-season analysis: Defense

Bates living up to preseason vow of improvement

Jim Bates stood in front of the media during draft weekend last April and insisted that he had enough talent on hand to improve Green Bay's defense. Halfway through the season, Green Bay's defense is the strongest part of the team.

The Packers enter Sunday's game at Atlanta ranked ninth overall in the National Football League in defense. The Packers have been strong against the run and have held their own against the pass, despite an inconsistent pass rush.

This represents a lot of progress from a defense that ranked 25th in the league last year and had trouble defending the pass and the run.

Despite numerous turnovers by the offense this season that has put the defense in a less-than-enviable position, it has kept the Packers in games. The defense played well enough for Green Bay to win at least six games this season, but either the offense's inability to score or turnovers wiped away solid performances. For example, The Steelers last Sunday didn't convert a third down in seven opportunities, excluding a game-ending knee taken by quarterback Charlie Batch, and five of those were stops on called pass plays. But the Packers turned the ball over three times, which resulted in 17 points in a 20-10 loss. Green Bay losses against Detroit, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Cincinnati were similar.

Of course, there is always room for improvement. If the Packers can figure out how to put more pressure on quarterbacks, their take-away total would improve. The Packers have only mustered 10 take-aways this season (six interceptions and four fumble recoveries). That ranks them near the bottom of the league.

The take-aways will come by pressuring quarterbacks into making mistakes, however, the Packers have not been able to consistently get to quarterbacks this season. Top pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has 3.5 sacks to lead the Packers. Aaron Kampman has 2.5 sacks and Al Harris 2.0.

The Packers added a few new faces to the defense at the start of the season, and that has made a big difference. Rookie Nick Collins has stepped in from the get-go at free safety and has played well, despite the skeptics who ripped the Packers for selecting him in the second round of last April's NFL draft. Mark Roman has improved, and Al Harris is the team's shut-down cornerback.

Ahmad Carroll got off to a shaky start by committing a number of the same holding and pass interference penalties that he did as a rookie last year, but he has settled down. He has made two impressive interceptions. He has all the talent. It's a matter of him believing in himself and he is gradually making progress.

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett leads the team in tackles with 109 and is on pace to shatter his career-high of 162 last year. He had a 95-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Saints and has played a big part in the team's run-defense, ranked sixth in the league in yards per attempt (3.6).

Newcomer Robert Thomas has been steady at outside linebacker. The Packers have played without veteran strong-side linebacker Na'il Diggs for all but two games this season, and most of training camp. Diggs is recovering from MCL tears in both knees and is expected to see some playing time this Sunday at Atlanta. Paris Lenon has done the job in place of Diggs, and the Packers are beginning to use rookie Brady Poppinga more in blitz situations.

Defensive tackle Grady Jackson has spearheaded the team's stout run defense. Jackson, in the final year of his contract, has 22 tackles (13 solo) in the last four games.

Green Bay's defense is improving. With the addition of high-quality lineman or two through free agency or the draft, more depth at linebacker and safety, it will continue to improve in 2006.

Grade: B

Thursday: Offense
Today: Defense
Saturday: Special teams
Sunday: Coaching

Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at packrepted@aol.com.

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