Before Packers training camp opened, there was talk was about the wide receivers group being the strength of the Packers.
Then, near the end of camp, the chatter shifted to the linebackers and the tough cuts general manager Ted Thompson faced with an abnormal number of talented players among that unit.
Now, seven games and a bye week into the regular season, the tune has changed again.
The personality and strength of this Packers' team has moved to the secondary, where, strangely enough, the unit has gotten better over the last three games without two of its top players in the lineup. Coming off their most impressive performance of the season against the Colts back on Oct. 19, the defensive backs have established themselves as a big-play unit from top to bottom. A swagger is evident.
"I'll say this," said head coach Mike McCarthy, "they are a confident group. You could see the young corners coming out in pre-game. They were, I don't want to call it fired up or loose, but they were into the game."
Peyton Manning had one of the worst performances of his career against the Packers in a 34-14 loss at Lambeau Field. He had a passer rating of only 46.6 and threw two interceptions, both of which were returned for touchdowns. His top two receivers, Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, combined for just four receptions and 35 yards.
Such a strong performance against one of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks should come as at least some surprise considering the Packers have played much of the first half of the season without cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby. Harris tore his spleen against the Cowboys in Week 3 and has not played since. Bigby has been sidelined the past five games with a hamstring injury. Both have returned to practice this week and could play in some capacity at Tennessee on Sunday.
The prognosis is looking better, too, for cornerback Charles Woodson's broken toe.
"Remarkably, it was able to heal during the time I played, and the last X-ray I took showed new bone growth," Woodson said. "I didn't even tape it up [against the Colts] and played. I still cut a hole in the side of my shoe just to give it some room. But other than that, I am playing mostly pain-free with the toe. It feels good."
Woodson, who has not missed a game despite the injury, is tied for the league lead in interceptions (four) with teammate Nick Collins and three others, and in interception returns for touchdowns (two), also with Collins and Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis.
Since the Cowboys game, the Packers pass defense has improved from 22nd in the league to sixth – allowing just 186 yards per game.
Perhaps more importantly, the secondary is creating turnovers. It leads the NFL with 13 interceptions and five touchdown returns, one off the team record set in 1966. The unit is averaging 34.3 yards per return, giving the Packers' game-changing shifts in momentum.
During the torrid stretch, the secondary has really molded what this year's defense, if not the team, is all about. Whereas the front seven normally sets the tone, it is the back four putting fear into opposing QBs.
So just how has the secondary become one of the best in the league, if not the best? A combination of an aggressive style and smarts can best sum it up. While many have talked about the ability of Collins, Tramon Williams, Will Blackmon and Aaron Rouse, their study off the field is making the difference. Several interceptions have come off the defensive backs reading the opposing quarterback, sometimes even coming off their assignment to make a big pick. And there has been little hesitation in closing on receivers and making the correct adjustments.
That has been a noticeable improvement particularly in Collins, who is playing as well as anyone on the team.
"I think Nick has kind of grown up in this defense as far as the understanding of the scheme," said McCarthy. "The maturity of recognizing the opponent is definitely an asset that he's gained through film study. But I think Nick is off to a great start. The ability to fight through some nagging injuries, too. He's really kind of come into his own this year."
The same goes for Williams, who has been filling in as the starter for Harris, and for Blackmon, who is finally healthy enough to contribute consistently in nickel and dime packages.
"I'm very happy with the opportunities our young players have been given and what they've done with them," said McCarthy.
Matt Tevsh is a Staff Writer for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Secondary Only Getting Stronger
Packer Report Top Stories
Seven-Round Mock: Outside LB in the ThirdThe Packers replaced T.J. Lang in the first round and got a badly needed cornerback in the second round. Now, with their third-round pick, it’s time to turn our attention to the…
Packer Report1:52 PM
McCaffrey in the First?The Green Bay Packers have pressing needs, but could they bypass Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and the limitless options he'd provide on offense?
Packer ReportYesterday at 7:10 PM
Seven-Round Mock: Corner in the SecondThere is no clear-cut pecking order in a deep and talented class of cornerbacks. Here are six possibilities for the Packers at No. 61.
Packer ReportYesterday at 2:41 PM
Replacing the Packers’ Free Agents: PeppersIt's a strong draft for edge-rushing prospects but how about at the elephant position that was manned by Julius Peppers and Datone Jones?
Packer ReportSaturday at 5:59 AM