It's been so long since Atari Bigby has been a factor that it's easy to forget just how good he was during the Packers' run to the NFC championship game.
In 2007, Bigby started all 16 games, intercepted four passes in the final four games of the regular season and developed into an enforcer in the secondary.
But out of a possible 20 regular-season games spanning all of 2008 and the start of 2009, Bigby has started seven games and intercepted one pass. He recorded at least 10 tackles in five games in 2007. He hasn't had more than eight since.
Bigby, who missed the last three games with a knee injury sustained in the opener against Chicago, appears set to start on Sunday against Detroit.
"It's been hard," Bigby said. "I'm thinking I'm coming back and regaining my form from '07 and then I get hurt the first game and it's ‘Here we go again.' You can't do nothing but get after it, make sure you're rehabbing right and get in the weight room and get back ready."
If Bigby finally can stay healthy, he could be the key ingredient this defense has been lacking.
"One, I know the guys believe in him when he's out there on the field," safeties coach Darren Perry told Packer Report on Friday. "There's a certain chemistry that those guys have for each other from playing together. Obviously, the leadership ability, and he brings a physical presence to the table. When he's out there, he gives us what we want in terms of a linebacker-slash-DB type of mentality playing strong safety. That's what he is and that's probably the biggest asset that he brings."
Trust. The Packers have lacked that trust. In Week 2, Aaron Rouse, who missed most of training camp, got the start in a 31-24 loss to Cincinnati. In Week 3, Derrick Martin, with just three weeks of experience in the scheme, started at St. Louis, though linebacker Brandon Chillar got most of the snaps. In Week 4 at Minnesota, Martin started and was benched, and the Packers lost 30-23.
After the Vikings game, cornerback Charles Woodson complained about the game plan. A day later, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said breakdowns in the secondary were a major reason why his play-calling was so conservative.
"He knows the defense, so just to have us at full strength, having him back, running around, his enthusiasm, helps out a lot," Woodson said. "We're happy to have him back."
On Friday, Capers said Bigby's return gives him the ability to use more of his bag of tricks. Part of that is Bigby's familiarity with the defense and comfort level working alongside Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins and cornerbacks Woodson and Al Harris. Part of it is Collins, Woodson and Harris have confidence that Bigby will be where he's supposed to be. Perry, a nine-year NFL standout at safety, knows what it's like when that confidence isn't there.
Atari Bigby is an impact player when healthy. Getty Images
"It's just human nature because you haven't been through the battles with certain guys," Perry said. "That's how you become one and you build that cohesiveness is going through some tough times, some good times, and having trust and having faith that, ‘Hey, this guy's going to be where he's supposed to be, he's going to do it the right way and I know he's got my back.' He allows you to feel a little bit more ease and anticipate and have an opportunity to make more plays."
In Bigby's absence, Collins has mostly disappeared. After intercepting seven passes last season, Collins picked off one pass and broke up two others against Chicago. With Bigby out the last three games, Collins has no interceptions and one pass defensed.
Perry said that with Bigby back, Collins will have the ability to "roam and do the things he does best."
"It means that the guys on the field — it's not just me — the other 10 guys on the field will be comfortable," Collins said, adding later: "I just get back to my normal position and hopefully I can start making more plays."
Along with running the defense and intercepting passes, Bigby adds the type of physical presence the Packers' defense sorely needs. That was evident down the stretch in 2007, and without Bigby last year, the Packers didn't have an intimidating presence.
In the five games in which Bigby played all or most of the defensive snaps last year, the Packers finished 3-2. In the nine games he missed in total and the two in which he missed most of the game because of ankle, hamstring and shoulder injuries, the Packers went 3-8.
"When Atari is in the game, on the field, there's definitely a different life to our defense," coach Mike McCarthy said. "His personality, his physicalness in the run game, he's a starter. He's a starter that really at the end of that (2007) season, we felt that he really came on strong, particularly in the playoff games. It would be good to have him back and hopefully he'll be ready to go."
Told of McCarthy's comments about adding "life" to the defense, Bigby came up with a colorful analogy.
"That's just me," Bigby said. "I try to be a confident safety back there. It's like being a pilot. You know, you don't want to hear your pilot say, ‘OK, we're going down!' You know? You want him to land that thing safe and sound, wherever you're at. That's what I bring and that's what they feel when I'm back there."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.