They've accomplished neither through three rounds of the 75th NFL draft, but the defense appears significantly better with two surprising additions. The Packers veered far off the charts of the so-called draft experts by taking Purdue defensive end Mike Neal in the second round. Then, Ted Thompson made a bold draft decision for the second consecutive year by vaulting up 15 spots in the third round to take Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett.
So, Neal isn't one of those jet-powered edge pass rushers. So, Burnett isn't one of those 6-foot corners that had to be enticing, such as Wake Forest's Brandon Ghee.
However, the Packers' defensive breakdowns in key moments last season weren't solely because they didn't have a sidekick to Clay Matthews III or enough cornerbacks to overcome a bushel full of injuries at the position.
Because of their top-ranked run defense, the Packers spent about 60 percent of their snaps playing nickel and saw quarterbacks dropping back in the pocket 61 percent of the time, which was one of the higher figures in the NFL last season. Other than Cullen Jenkins, the Packers got almost no pass rush from defensive linemen Johnny Jolly and B.J. Raji when in nickel.
The hope is Neal will be an upgrade in that department with his intriguing combination of Herculean strength (510-pound bench press) and surprising athleticism (40-yard time of 4.89 seconds). He had 5.5 sacks in each of his last two seasons with the Boilermakers. Plus, he obviously adds depth to a defensive line unit that counted on Ryan Pickett, Jenkins, Jolly and Raji to carry the load while getting almost nothing from Justin Harrell in his horrific three-year career. The movement he showed at Purdue mirrors what the Packers expect from their defensive linemen.
"Good pass rusher – we'll improve him in the pass rush," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "He's a very good athlete. A guy that runs like he can for his size, those guys are hard to find. He's a guy that can beat you with quickness. He's got good, quick first steps. I'll teach him some nice countermoves off of that."
In the secondary, the numerous breakdowns against top quarterbacks were personified by the gouge-your-eyes-out coverage of Jarrett Bush. But the problems ran deeper than Bush's play as the third corner. Safety Atari Bigby is a difference-maker when healthy. Don't believe it? In the last two seasons, the Packers are 12-6 when he starts but 5-9 when he doesn't. Plus, the Packers lost the wild card game at Arizona, when Bigby left with an injured hamstring in the third quarter. Beyond his frequent injuries, Bigby's lack of range in the secondary can be exploited, especially by elite quarterbacks.
The hope is Burnett will pair with Pro Bowler Nick Collins to form a big-play safety tandem. Collins leads all NFL safeties with 13 interceptions over the last two seasons, and Burnett picked off 14 passes during his three seasons at Georgia Tech – including a NCAA-leading seven in 2008. Plus, Burnett never missed a game during his collegiate career, playing with a cast on a broken thumb for the first four weeks of the 2009 season.
Burnett was the sixth safety off the board – some 22 slots after USC's athletic wunderkind Taylor Mays landed in San Francisco. He has a chance to be one of the best, though, because of his impeccable ball skills, intelligence and willingness to stick his head into the run game.
"You get some guys that run 4.3 and play to a 4.7 because they take wrong angles, are not quite sure what they're doing," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "This guy here, if you understand the game of football and you have some awareness and some instincts, that allows you to play faster. Time and time again, you'll see guys that run 4.6 and 4.7 and you see his play speed is much faster on tape than it would be at a pro day or workout. You see that out of Morgan."
Barring one of Saturday's late-round picks turning into a rookie sensation, it will be up to the Packers to improve their coverage and pass rush from within. Brad Jones has been practically a forgotten man with the clamoring to take a Jerry Hughes or Sergio Kindle in the first round. With a year of seasoning, maybe he becomes an above-average starter. At cornerback, the Packers will be counting on – wishing, hoping, praying … however you want to put it – that some combination of Al Harris, Pat Lee and Will Blackmon can stay healthy and Brandon Underwood can improve in his second season.
But one thing is certain: The Packers will rush the passer better and they'll cover better than they did in 2009. Whether it's enough to leapfrog the Vikings in the NFC North or keep pace with the Eagles, Cowboys and Cardinals in the NFC, that remains to be seen.
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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.