Part of the reason that the Packers struggled against the run can be attributed to injuries to defensive linemen. Nose tackle Gilbert Brown missed four games with knee and foot injuries, and made an early exit from the playoff game due to a hip injury. The Packers also lost both of their run-stopping defensive ends – Joe Johnson and Vonnie Holliday – earlier in the season. Johnson suffered a season-ending biceps injury on Oct. 7 against the Chicago Bears while Holliday missed six games with chest and knee injuries. The Packers also played without Cletidus Hunt four a couple of games in the middle of the season after Hunt sprained his right knee.
The Packers did not get much production from their linebackers, either. Na'il Diggs, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 1, performed the best of the three starters. Diggs started every game and was second on the team in tackles with 111. He had three sacks, two interceptions and seven passes defensed.
Veteran middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, 37, always seemed to be a step behind the ball carrier. Outside linebacker Nate Wayne led the team in tackles with 132. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two in addition to his 2.5 sacks.
It is likely that the Packers will part ways with Brown, Holliday and Nickerson this off-season, so middle linebacker and defensive tackle will be the team's top priorities in the draft and free agency. Besides the aforementioned three players who will become free agents, the Packers also face the prospect of losing Hunt, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. But look for the Packers to pursue re-signing Hunt, who has blossomed into a top defensive tackle in the last two seasons, over Holliday.
"We'll definitely be looking for defensive line help in the draft as I always think that's a priority for you," said Packers coach and general manager Mike Sherman. "You can't have too many defensive linemen. That's one of the reasons I kept so many this year and I'm glad that I did."
The Packers' defense ranked 12th overall among NFL teams, yielding 5.1 yards per play and 311.6 yards per game. Tampa Bay led the NFL in defense, giving up just 252.8 yards per game.
Among the bright spots on defense was safety Darren Sharper and rookie Marques Anderson. Sharper was named as a starter to his second Pro Bowl and finished the season with seven interceptions. His final pickoff, though, was costly as he suffered a medial collateral ligament sprain and was unable to play in the final two games.
Anderson stepped in for the injured Antuan Edwards early in the season and never relinquished the starting job at strong safety. The third-round pick out of UCLA had four interceptions this season, seven passes defensed and was seventh on the team with 61 tackles.
Green Bay's secondary is its strongest area of the defense entering the off-season. The Packers were third in the league in passing yards allowed, averaging 186.7 yards per game. Only Tampa Bay (155.6 yards per game) and Indianapolis (182.3 yards per game) were better. The Packers allowed opponents to complete just 54 percent of their passes. Green Bay gave up 24 touchdowns by air but also intercepted 24 passes.
The 24 interceptions combined with 21 fumble recoveries helped the Packers lead the league with a plus-17 takeaway ratio.
Veteran cornerback Tyrone Williams will likely be released from the final season of his contract as planned when he signed the deal four years ago. Look for the Packers to attempt to re-sign Williams because his main backup, Bhawoh Jue, is coming off a hernia surgery and is untested as a starting cornerback.
Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila picked up where he left off from his breakthrough 2001 season by collecting a team-high 12 sacks. He also proved his durability as a starter, filling in for Johnson and starting the final 12 overall games. Despite the sudden death of his mother in early December, Gbaja-Biamila did not miss a beat thanks to the support of his teammates and coaches.
Scheduled to become a restricted free agent, Gbaja-Biamila could be a target for a contract extension this off-season or sometime before the next season ends.
Expected to be of championship caliber, the Packers' defense surrendered more than 700 yards to opponents in the first two games and got off to a horrible start. But defensive coordinator Ed Donatell kept his troops focused and the Packers settled down as the team won seven straight games. During the second half of the season the Packers gave up a season-high 425 yards of offense in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 17 while shutting out the Buffalo Bills and giving up only 185 total yards to the Buffalo Bills in a victory on Dec. 29.
Because the Packers were a little better than average but not real good on defense, they receive a Packer Report grade of C+.
Editor's note: On Wednesday, Packer Report will analize and grade the Packers' special teams in 2002.