Can Sanders' defense do it again?

Carolina's offense has been inept since Jake Delhomme went down. Meanwhile, the Packers' defense, led by once-embattled coordinator Bob Sanders, is one of the stingiest in the NFL.

The Green Bay Packers' defense has to be licking its chops.

One week after whitewashing the Minnesota Vikings' inept offense, the Packers take on a Carolina Panthers offense that has the punt as a staple in the playbook.

Due in large part to an offense hamstrung since a season-ending injury to quarterback Jake Delhomme, the Panthers rank a paltry 26th in the NFL in scoring with 16.7 points per game.

Delhomme isn't a marquee quarterback by any stretch, but during his three starts, he had a lofty 111.8 passer rating behind eight touchdown passes and one interception. Carolina averaged 25.0 points per game and went 2-1 to open the season.

In his absence, Carolina is 2-4 and has scored 25 points just once. During those six games, the Panthers are averaging 12.5 points. Outside of a 25-10 victory Arizona — in which Vinny Testaverde made his debut after just three days of practice — Carolina hasn't scored more than a touchdown in any of those six games. In last week's 20-13 loss to Atlanta, the defense scored the only touchdown.

The difference between the Packers' offense and the Panthers' offense is obvious. At quarterback, it's Brett Favre vs. Testaverde. At receiver, it's Favre's "Big Five" group of receivers vs. electric Steve Smith.

The difference in talent is evident in the numbers. Offenses make a living on first and third downs. A nice gain on first down opens the playbook for second down and allows for easier third-down conversions.

On first down, Carolina averages 4.4 yards compared to 5.4 for Green Bay. The big difference, though, is on third down, when Carolina averages 4.4 yards while Green Bay picks up a whopping 7.3 yards. That's why Carolina converts 35.6 percent of its third downs while Green Bay picks up 44.3 percent of its third downs.

No NFL team has posted back-to-back shutouts since 2001 — and defensive coordinator Bob Sanders had never part of a shutout in his seven seasons as an NFL assistant until last week — so don't expect Green Bay's defense to turn the trick again on Sunday. But that it's even a possibility is a credit to a lot of people, including Sanders and coach Mike McCarthy for sticking with Sanders.

Sanders, popular former defensive coordinator Jim Bates' right-hand man for many years, looked like he was in over his head for much of last season, his first as a coordinator. When Green Bay started the season 4-8, the Packers were allowing 27.0 points per game.

You know what happened during those last four games. The Packers went 4-0, and Sanders' defense allowed 10.5 points per game.

Still, there was some question about whether McCarthy would stick with Sanders. He did, and that turned out to be one of his many good moves this year.

A change would have meant the fifth defensive coordinator in five years in Green Bay. By sticking with Sanders, however, the defense is using the same scheme for three consecutive years. The unit's growth from last season has carried over. Buoyed by last week's shutout, the Packers rank third in the NFL in allowing 15.8 points per game.

They've done it with Sanders calling a rather vanilla game. He knows his players' strengths, and he's smart enough to let the defense win games by talent rather than scheme. It also means Sanders has a bunch of exotic stuff to throw at, say, Dallas that the Cowboys haven't seen.

Good offenses, especially when they are so dependent on one person — Brett Favre, in the Packers' case — can have an off day. Good defenses, especially when they don't depend on one singular talent, almost never have a bad day.

That's why, barring something flukish, the Packers will be 9-1 after Sunday and are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to E-mail him at

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