By giving up an average of 301 net passing yards per game so far, the Packers rank second to last in the NFL. Last year they led the NFL in pass defense at just 167.5 yards per game.
Such gaudy numbers totaled through the air and the wide differential in overall ranking are an early-season concern for the Packers, but by no means do those statistics indicate the Packers defense is worse than a year ago.
The problems the defense has been encountering are easily correctible. They are not representative of the unit's talent because position-by-position the Packers are better than more than half the teams in the NFL. The solutions all start with defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and his staff.
Sanders, in his first season leading a defense, is adjusting to his new job. The Packers have played mainly base sets (a 4-3-4 alignment) over the first three games while Sanders determines how to game plan each week and mix in other defenses. While ex-defensive coordinator Jim Bates was an aggressor with his plan each week, Sanders has been more protective. That will change with time. Until he is completely comfortable with his calls, there will be coverage breakdowns and mismatches.
Those mismatches, not unlike the one Eagles running back Brian Westbrook may present this coming week, have been a major problem for the Packers in the first three weeks. Linebacker Brady Poppinga struggling in pass coverage has been the most obvious example. Under Bates a year ago, such mismatches were not an issue, even with inferior talent. Thus, the unit played much better as a whole.
Defensive breakdowns in the secondary have also been an issue. Whether it be in man-to-man or zone coverage, the Packers have often been exploited for explosive gains (16 yards or more), a topic head coach Mike McCarthy has discussed with the local media. Marquand Manuel getting beat in quarters coverage on a touchdown by the Bears Bernard Berrian and Nick Collins getting over late on a touchdown by the Lions Roy Williams were two big plays that could have been prevented with better communication and continuity.
A player like Collins has been lauded for his tough play, but something as seemingly fundamental as knowing how to play the ball has made him look bad. Though Collins was a big key in shutting down the Saints in Week 2, many thought he had a poor game because on two explosive plays by the Saints, he played the ball poorly when matched up in coverage. His feet got tangled up on a 33-yard gain to tight end Mark Campbell, and he had good coverage on a 35-yard touchdown pass to Marques Colston, but was unable to locate the ball. Both mistakes by the second-year safety likely will not happen again with proper technique work.
Further complicating matters for the Packers in the last two weeks is that they have run into some well-noted play callers and game-planners, making Sanders' task that much tougher. Saints head coach Sean Peyton is one of the bright young offensive minds in the NFL and Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz has led some record offenses. Last year, the Packers defense did not encounter such challenges. They played a number of teams with conservative game plans and average quarterbacks which contributed to a No. 1 pass defense ranking.
The Packers and Sanders cannot be pleased with how they have started this season on defense, but the situation is not nearly as dire as the numbers indicate. They have much to build on. With a little work in practice and a little seasoning by all those involved, the problems will be easily corrected.
Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.