Commentary: Issues team must address

You heard it here first: The Green Bay Packers will be back in the NFL playoffs again next year. With any luck the Packers will return with a few less injured players, improved punt and kick return units, and a more consistent run defense.<p>

The Packers had a successful season despite a plethora of injuries. The team was able to achieve 12 wins thanks to sparkling play by its reserves, another great season by Brett Favre, and a few lucky breaks, especially at home. Playing in a weak division and with an easier schedule than most teams also contributed toward Green Bay's victory total.

Like most teams, the Packers had some problems. But they were able to mask inefficient punt and kickoff return units and a susceptible run-defense for most of the season. When the playoffs began, the Atlanta Falcons quickly exposed those two weaknesses in front of a record 65,358 fans, who became so ticked off that rarely heard boos poured down onto the frozen tundra like the snow that began falling from the sky during the Packers' first and only home playoff loss in team history. And it was only the first quarter.

By then the Packers had a punt blocked that was returned for a touchdown. The Packers then muffed a punt return early in the second quarter and the Falcons capitalized to take a 21-0 lead. In the meantime, Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn were running circles around the Packers' run defense.

Don Shula was on a national radio talk show this week and was asked what he feels was the key to his successful Miami Dolphins teams in the 1970s. The Hall of Fame coach didn't hesitate in his response and said special teams ahead of defense as the key to the Dolphins' fortunes.

The most consistent disappointment this season with the Green Bay Packers was special teams. From the pre-season till the NFC Wild Card playoff against the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay's return units were a big drag on the team. The Packers failed to get one touchdown out of special teams this season. Worse than that, the offense rarely received good field position. Special teams also was guilty of giving up big returns at the worst possible times.

The run-defense also was a disappointment. When Gilbert Brown played, the Packers seemed to perform better against the run. But middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson showed why the Philadelphia Eagles would not commit to him as a starter when they tried to sign him last June – he is slower than he was earlier in his career and, therefore, a late arrival on many plays this season. Brown is as good as they come at nose tackle, but he also missed four games due to injuries and most of the playoff game after injuring his hip early on.

The Packers have four Pro Bowl players on offense. Mike Flanagan arguably is the team's fifth Pro Bowl player and probably would have been selected to the NFC squad if he had played one position this season.

Green Bay has Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, who leads an above-average secondary. As Mike Sherman begins work on patching the holes in Green Bay's boat this off-season, special teams has to be the top priority. From there, the Packers need to beef up their run-defense by signing or drafting a defensive tackle and middle linebacker.

If the Packers can successfully patch these holes and try to retain either Cletidus Hunt or Vonnie Holliday, Green Bay again will have a team with potential to make a Super Bowl run.

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