Defense comes first

Thompson banking on unit to lead the way for Packers

An irritated 38-year old quarterback is surrounded by rookies and second year players. Call it a transition. Call it turmoil. Fact is, Green Bay's offense is starting over.

How much will Mike McCarthy lean on the zone blocking scheme without Ahman Green and Jeff Jagodzinski? Exactly how short is the leash on Aaron Rodgers? Will the tight end position be reintroduced into the passing game? Does general manager Ted Thompson truly believe third round pick James Jones is a better receiving option than Randy Moss?

Uneasy questions infest an unpredictable Packers offense.

But it might not matter as much as you may think.

The overused clichés that the Packers will "go as far as No. 4 takes them" and "as long as you have Brett Favre, you have a chance to win" can officially be downgraded to secondary winning formulas.

Don't pull out the Trent Dilfer-Baltimore Ravens comparison just yet, but Thompson's road map of the franchise is treading a distinct pattern.

The Packers are pushing all their chips to the defensive side of the ball for the present and future.

A Change in Identity
Right now players at each level on the defense are hitting their prime. The onus is on them to carry the team. Not Favre. Not Donald Driver. Not a patchwork cavalry of running backs. By design, the offense has been reserved supplementary.

Talent-wise and financially, Green Bay's success boils down to a unit that allowed only one touchdown in the season's final 12 quarters. Ted Thompson and the Packers brass are banking on that momentum.

Not a bad idea. It's just that nobody's used to it.

"I'm excited about our defense," said defensive end Aaron Kampman, who observed minicamp keenly from the sideline, following arthroscopic knee surgery. "When you talk to the guys in this locker room, you're going to see that type of energy that we have.

"We get in the team meeting room and you can see it on the field," he smiled, trying mightily to bottle his enthusiasm. "It's transferring over. The guys are moving real well. The off-season work has been tremendous. Guys have made a lot of individual gains and now we're seeing it collectively."

For the first time in four years, this off-season progression was possible. Green Bay hasn't retained its defensive coordinator since the Ed "4th and 26" Donatell Era. Instead of trying to adapt to a completely new scheme, the Packers' defense finally knows what to expect from coordinator Bob Sanders and each other. There will be no "feeling out" process and no trial by error to begin the season. Secondary meltdowns, third-and-long conversions, and hesitant blitzing all but evaporated by the end of last year.

The defense plans to use last season's four-game winning streak as a blueprint for this fall.

"We ended on a good note," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Anytime you do that, you try to carry it into the next season…We feel like the sky's the limit. But like anything it's about hard work and going out there and doing it."

Woodson isn't the aging, slow corner many believed he was. Teaming with Al Harris, Green Bay's corner duo combined for 11 interceptions, 37 breakups, and 103 tackles in ‘06. Clearly in their prime, Woodson and Harris are justifying their $70 million in contract money. As Antuan Edwards and Ahmad Carroll proved, there's no substitute for a pair of shutdown corners.

More than $73 million was pumped into the Nick Barnett-A.J. Hawk 1-2 punch at linebacker. A wise, low-risk move considering their Pro Bowl potential.

And finally the defense has found its leader in Kampman, who's safely under contract through 2010. If San Diego's Shawne Merriman swallows a few less steroids then Kampman is the reigning NFL sack champion. No longer just a beefy overachiever, Kampman is an elite two-way defensive end after posting 89 tackles and 15.5 sacks, most of them in crucial situations.

These are the Green Bay Packers. All under contract. All go-to playmakers. All peaking in their careers. All on defense.

Why is Favre steaming? Thompson refuses to make the offense the team's focal point. It was expected that the Packers' front office would use December's success to springboard the offense. All of that excess dough just had to lure Moss, Michael Turner, Drew Bennett, and/or Kevin Curtis to cure an offense that scored only 18.8 points per game (22nd in NFL), elevating the team to a championship-level.

Then Thompson pulled a 180.

Available cap money was quietly replenished into the fading contracts of Cullen Jenkins, Nick Barnett, Al Harris. This strengthens continuity, solidifies the unit's future, and lessens pressure on the entire offense… let alone Favre.

Green Bay is ready to win ugly, i.e. the Minnesota and Detroit home wins last season. That can be hard for a three-time MVP to accept. But for the first time since the days of Reggie White and LeRoy Butler, Green Bay is building a defense that can close games.

"We Feel Like One…"
It's almost a given that Kampman, Barnett, Hawk, Woodson, and Harris will deliver. The question marks hover over one position at each level - defensive tackle, outside linebacker, and strong safety. Far too often last season, offenses exploited an individual on defense, whether it was Shaun Alexander running right at Abdul Hodge for 200 yards or Chad Pennington capitalizing on Brady Poppinga's coverage woes to build a 31-0 lead.

For Bob Sanders' defense to become elite, players like Poppinga must take the next step and assimilate naturally with the 10 others on the field.

Sure it's only minicamp, but Poppinga believes he's no longer a third wheel.

"The comfort level will add to my effectiveness and how we play as a defense," said Poppinga, who registered 61 tackles last year- half of Hawk's total.

Thompson had the cap money to entice prize free agent Adalius Thomas, who could have completed the NFL's best linebacker trio. Could have. Instead he banked on team chemistry and knowledge of the system over foreign star power. Thompson ensured that Barnett is a Packer for six more years, simultaneously offering a vote of confidence to Poppinga.

Sometimes the best move is not making one, a risky approach that will affect Thompson's approval rating this season.

"We feel like one," Poppinga described his on-field relationship with Hawk and Barnett. "We feed off each other, [create] synergy, help each other, and support each other. We try to be as one."

Poppinga won't make or break the defense himself, but he epitomizes what Kampman touched on. Small individual improvements from last season's holdovers and a dose of new blood (Marviel Underwood, Justin Harrell, etc.) equates to a mass improvement for Sanders' unit.

High-priced, popular ball hawks were available for the Packers' pickings. But who knows how fast Thomas' learning curve would have been? Who knows what effort you're getting from a newcomer after handing him millions?

Green Bay's current defense is hungry and best of all, on the same page. It's too bad the season had to end after the 26-7 win in Chicago. More and more games are needed to make that ‘synergy' permanent. And then they'll be playing more on instincts and less on delayed thought processes, a transformation Rex Grossman painfully got a taste of.

Youthful Depth
In the past three drafts, Thompson has drafted 16 defensive players. At least five of them will likely enter September as starters.

In comparison, Mike Sherman drafted 12 defensive players in his three seasons as general manager. Only three are those are still on the team - Corey Williams ('04), Nick Barnett ('03), and Aaron Kampman ('02).

For Thompson, quantity is valued over quality, with the hope that a handful of darkhorses surface. But how much is too much? Defensively, there shouldn't be restrictions. Just let them battle for roster spots in July and August. Such depth should help Sanders from becoming a victim to busts and injuries.

Five years ago when Jamal Reynolds, Joe Johnson, and Cletidus Hunt flamed out quicker than Rosie O'Donnell's career, Green Bay's run defense vanished (if only Rosie could do the same). Emergency fill-ins Rod Walker, Chukie Nwokorie, and Steve Warren were better suited on an NFL practice squad, not vaulted into the defensive line rotation for a 12-4 team. But poor personnel moves limited Green Bay's options. Not surprisingly, the Packers' mince meat run defense promptly plummeted to 21st in 2002, ruining an otherwise dynamic team.

At one point, that team was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a Super Bowl favorite, were in the driver's seat for homefield advantage and next to Rich Gannon, Favre was the top MVP candidate. Then… poof! Michael Vick is prancing through the snow and through green and gold, single-handedly accounting for the Packers' first playoff loss ever at Lambeau Field.

All because of a lack of depth.

Ever so quietly, Green Bay's ensuring such an effect doesn't occur this year. With borderline starters as backups (Corey Williams, Frank Walker, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila) and a strong DL rotation brewing, an injury or two shouldn't slow down Sanders' system. Heading into training camp, the Packers will encourage competition at each position. Instead of acquiring veterans on the decline like Nwokorie and Hardy Nickerson, Thompson opts for loads of youth through the draft to push for playing time.

This luxury was gained at the expense of the offense's explosiveness the past two drafts. Vernon Davis and Robert Meachem would have given Favre two physically-gifted weapons to play catch with. But now the defense has an unusual blend of youth and experience. Hawk and Harrell look to be safe, solid picks that could elevate an above-average defense (12th in NFL) to premier status.

Maybe Thompson's inactivity during free agency caused receding hairlines throughout Packer Nation. At times it seemed he was oblivious to fact that the Packers are on the cusp of playoff contention, only a handful of playmakers away. But if you're going to rely on new faces somewhere it might as well be at running back and receiver, where rookies and no-names have repeatedly become starters in the NFL. Not on defense, where games are typically won and lost.

Now the core of Green Bay's defense is under contract together for the next 4-5 years. If they gel as expected, that could be a very special half-decade … it may have to bail the offense out more than any Favre-led team is accustomed to doing.

Tyler Dunne is a frequent contributor to E-mail him at

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