Have the Packers found a capable nickel back?
Will safety Marquand Manuel be exploited again?
Can defensive coordinator Bob Sanders learn from his first year on the job?
Will the linebackers continue to improve in pass coverage?
While it would be easy to play Mr. Optimism regarding any of the above questions, there is more cause for concern than hope as the Packers have done little to suggest improvement this off-season. If they cannot find a way to stop No. 3, all the assembled defensive talent in the world will not mean a thing.
The NFL has increasingly become a league of teams and coaches who consistently look to three-wide receiver sets in pressure situations. Need a first down facing a critical third down situation? Pull out a back and put in another receiver. Need a score during the two-minute drill? Take out a less-than athletic tight end and insert another receiver or two. As for those teams with freakish tight ends? Well, they always seem to find the right mismatch. Five of the league's top six tight ends in receptions played in the playoffs a year ago.
As Packers fans get their first glimpse of the 2007 team this month during Organized Team Activities (OTA's), their attention may be focused on first-round pick Justin Harrell, or a rising star in A.J. Hawk when the secret to the team's defensive success might be lost among the simple walk-throughs and repetitions. As crazy as it sounds, the Packers have to find a way to stop guys like Desmond Clark, Kevin Curtis, Greg Lewis, Billy McMullen, and D.J. Hackett – all little-known No. 3 targets who had a big impact in games against the Packers last year.
To stop a competent passing attack, it takes three competent coverage defenders and the right calls in the right situations to have the optimum chance at success. The Packers have two solid corners in Al Harris and Charles Woodson, but after that, the drop off is considerable.
General manager Ted Thompson bypassed cornerbacks in the draft who could have challenged for the nickel back spot, arguably one of the top five most critical positions on defense. Instead, the Packers signed cornerback Frank Walker in free agency and are hoping Will Blackmon can recover from injury, though neither player has a background that suggests they will provide answers. Walker has a reputation of more of a "take chances" type of cornerback, and the story on Blackmon, a multi-purpose player in college, has been injuries since being drafted by the Packers in 2006.
After the Ahmad Carroll nickel back experiment ended horribly early last season, Patrick Dendy fared better, but not quite up to the level required to compete with the better passing teams. The Packers need to find reliability in spot situations from their backups. A veteran still could be signed this summer and would provide much needed competition and help.
Then again, maybe it was coaching that put the Packers' defense in bad situations. Sanders took some heat in his first season as a defensive coordinator before finishing the season strong (albeit against some weak teams) in the final month. The Packers were embarrassed by the Jets and Patriots last season in games which they looked totally unprepared. In both cases, pedestrian receivers, not superstars, burned the Packers' defense leaving some fans scratching their heads. More than anything, it seemed adjustments came too late and game plans fell short, leaving plenty of blame to go around.
If there are areas of hope, Hawk showed improvement covering tight ends and Brady Poppinga was in less vulnerable coverage positions as the year wore on. Manuel, who probably will remain the starter at safety throughout training camp, will be on a short leash with the promise of Marviel Underwood and rookie Aaron Rouse waiting behind him.
The Packers must get better with their defensive approach, though any immediate answers to curing what ailed them are unclear. Luckily, they have time to get it right because making the opposition's No. 3 a non-factor should be a No. 1 priority.
Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at email@example.com.