Reason for optimism

Packers defense beginning to live up to preseason billing

Matt Leinart had to be wondering just what was up on Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals' rookie QB was sacked four times, hit seven more, picked off and basically shut down by a secondary that's ranked last in the league and gets scored on more than Paris Hilton. The vaunted Bears defense didn't have this kind of success against him two weeks ago. But the Packers did.

For the second straight week, Green Bay's defense got to the quarterback, got their hands on the ball and avoided the kind of big play that's killed them in four losses. The two longest plays they gave up against Arizona were a 22-yard pass to tight end Leonard Pope and a 17-yard score to Troy Walters, both in a third-quarter drive. Edgerrin (sure wish I hadn't drafted him in the first round of my fantasy league) James had 84 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, but his longest gain of the day was just nine yards. And his impact on the game was negligible.

In a season where the Packers have been better than you thought they'd be but not as good as you want them to be, this defense gives you a reason to be optimistic. They're not the Bears. They're not the Broncos. But they're not bad, either.

Defensive end Aaron Kampman came into this game tied for third in the NFL in sacks and added two more, for 8.5. Rookie A.J. Hawk has been a tackling machine, notching eight more onto his team-leading total against the Cards. And cornerback Charles Woodson, the team's highly-priced/over-priced free agent acquisition is finally starting to earn his paycheck with his second interception in as many weeks. Even middle linebacker Nick Barnett got into the act, swinging his imaginary Samurai sword -- previously banned by ex-Head Coach Mike Sherman -- after a couple big plays to fire up the crowd and his teammates.

Now before we get too excited, let's keep in mind that the Miami Dolphins are one of the worst teams in the league and easily its biggest under-achievers, and the Cardinals aren't far behind. Their quarterbacks are Joey Harrington and Leinart, a rookie. A poised rookie with a bright future, but still a rookie. And these teams have one win a piece.

There's an old cliché in the NFL, ‘You beat the teams you're supposed to beat.' That's what the Packers did. But a couple weeks ago, most people were pretty sure the Packers were one of the worst teams in the NFL, so this is progress.

"Winning in the NFL is winning," Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "I'll never apologize for a victory over anyone. If you ask New Orleans or St. Louis, they won't apologize for their victories here at Lambeau."

And no apologies are needed here. The Cardinals got beat where most teams get beat, in the trenches. The Packers have nothing on these guys when it comes to struggling offensive lines. And while it looks like things are falling into place for the Packers front five, it was basically falling apart for the Cards. They started their usual left guard, Reggie Wells at right tackle, put back-up Chris Liwienski (a back-up right guard and tackle) at left guard and inserted rookie Deuce Lutui at right guard. Uh, does the phrase ‘back to the drawing board' come to mind?

"They had some new guys at some new positions so we knew we wanted to blitz a little early in the game and see if we can get them confused and just run our stuff," Barnett said. "A couple of those things opened up and we got to the quarterback a couple of times. We had a sense of urgency and there was some great coverage on the back end.

"But we were just out there playing football and fortunately we were able to make some plays, get to the quarterback, Charles came up with that big pick, and we're just having fun. We're doing what we're supposed to be doing whether it's against Arizona or whoever."

It's important to keep in mind that this Packers defense was supposed to be good this year. They retained, in essence, the same scheme that departed defensive coordinator Jim Bates ran. They added Ryan Pickett at nose-tackle, an upgrade over the run-stuffing, but oft-injured Grady Jackson. They added Hawk, the fifth overall pick in the draft, to a linebacking corp that was their greatest weakness, and they upgraded a No.1 rated secondary (a rating that was mostly an illusion last year since everyone found success running) with Woodson and Marquand Manuel. The big play, however, had been their undoing up until two weeks ago. At least for now, it seems they've found the cure.

"You only grow with victory,' said a smiling Kampman, after a home victory where he's already matched his career high for sacks for a season. "And when you play with a lot of confidence, good things happen."

Good things also happen when you play teams that aren't that good. And next up on the schedule are the Buffalo Bills. But when you start getting good at beating the teams you're supposed to beat, you start beating some teams that you're not supposed to beat. And that time may not be too far off for this team.


W. Keith Roerdink

Editor's note: W. Keith Roerdink is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


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