D Needs Quality, Not Just Quantity

The Green Bay defensive corps lacks the big-time performers to keep up with a high-powered offense. The Packers simply have not gotten enough from first-round picks like Barnett, Hawk and Harrell, and their young players have not developed as expected.

The New Orleans Saints scored 51 points on Monday against the Green Bay Packers.

Had Reggie Bush been healthy and coach Sean Payton not gotten smug and found some gadget play from Page 1,544 of the playbook, the Saints would have scored 100 or so.

Monday's defensive meltdown in the Superdome was stunning. All except it wasn't.

Up and down the defensive roster, the Packers have a bunch of pretty good players. Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly as the starting defensive tackles? Pretty good. A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga as the starting linebackers? Pretty good. Atari Bigby at safety? Pretty good. Justin Harrell, Colin Cole, Brandon Chillar, Aaron Rouse, Tramon Williams and Michael Montgomery as key reserves? Pretty good.

There's nothing wrong with having pretty good players. But too many pretty good players and not enough difference-makers? Well, that's the Packers' defense, which ranks 22nd in the NFL in points allowed after yielding seven touchdowns and a field goal in nine possession against New Orleans.

Aaron Kampman is a borderline elite defensive end, but he doesn't have any help around him, especially after Cullen Jenkins went down with a season-ending injury. Cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson and safety Nick Collins are big-time performers, too. But their productivity in the first 10 games in spite of a lackluster pass rush and the defense's inability to cover tight ends and running backs speaks volumes about the lousy quarterbacks the Packers had seen for most of this season.

Harrell, the controversial first-round pick in 2007, is nothing more than a bit player. None of the mid- to late-round picks — guys like Montgomery, Jolly, Poppinga and Rouse — have developed into more than average performers. None of them has shown the slightest inkling they can be someone like Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, a former fifth-round selection who blossomed into the team's career leader in sacks.

Heading into this season, an unquestioned strength of this team was its linebackers. Now, it's a weakness.

Barnett didn't play at anywhere near the Pro Bowl level he was at for much of last season, and now he's out for the year with a knee injury. Poppinga, always strong against the run and at least OK against the pass last year, has turned into a weak link this season. He's a liability against the pass and has missed too many tackles against the run.

The surprising issue is Hawk, who as the No. 5 pick in the 2006 draft was supposed to be a difference-maker but instead seems like just another guy on most plays.

Hawk was superb in Barnett's spot against the Bears, but faced with a wide-open offense and better athletes against the Saints on Monday, he was exploited repeatedly. Maybe it's the groin that bothered him earlier this season, but Hawk just isn't athletic enough to cover anybody. Saints tight end Billy Miller — who nobody will mistake for Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez — flat out ran past Hawk for a 16-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

Generally, general manager Ted Thompson has been cautious in free agency, due in part ot his belief that his young players would grow into polished veterans. This year's disappointing performance, which was underscored by Monday's defenseless debacle, should make him reconsider his tact.

Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com.

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