Major Blow With Harris On PUP

Just how big of a hole does Al Harris' early-season absence leave in the Packers' defense? Suffice it to say, opposing offenses will challenge that defense like never before, with undrafted Sam Shields essentially replacing Harris in the starting lineup.

Here's an interesting question to ponder: What is the more irrelevant position for the Green Bay Packers?

Is it punter, given the high-octane nature of the Packers' offense?

Or is it nose tackle, considering only a fool would run against the Packers' defense?

Surprisingly, the answer is probably nose tackle.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers on Tuesday estimated that the Packers ran "sub" defenses about 60 percent of the time last year, meaning the Packers had five (or six) defensive backs and no nose tackle on the field more often than they ran their base 3-4 alignment.

Common sense would suggest the Packers will be forced to play nickel or dime more often than ever this season. Why would any team bother running at 305-pound defensive end Cullen Jenkins or 340-pound defensive end Ryan Pickett or 337-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji when it could trot out a third or fourth receiver to match up with the Packers' suspect cornerbacks?

Of course, you've probably thought of this for the past few months, but the decision to put 13-year veteran cornerback Al Harris on the physically unable to perform list on Tuesday only amplifies that scenario.

In last week's preseason game against Indianapolis, the Packers didn't run a single snap of their base defense because Peyton Manning and Co. ran nothing but three-receiver sets. Fortunately for the Packers, Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb is not Manning, nor is whoever Buffalo will trot out in Week 2. But Chicago's Jay Cutler, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Washington's Donovan McNabb in Weeks 3 through 5, respectively, are supremely talented, and Miami's Chad Henne in Week 6 is considered an up-and-comer.

And those are just the six weeks in which Harris isn't allowed to practice. Assuming Harris needs more than a week of practice before he's deemed fit to play, the Week 7 game is at home against Brett Favre and the Vikings.

Gulp.


Williams gets beaten in the Indy game.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Who will those quarterbacks be facing in Harris' absence? Charles Woodson is the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year, but he can't cover everybody. Without Harris, Tramon Williams remains in the starting lineup. Williams is a bit of a gambler — as capable of making a big play as giving up two or three — and Manning beat him three times when Williams was caught looking in the backfield. At this point, rookie Sam Shields looks like essentially a starter as the third cornerback.

Shields is immensely talented and he hasn't cracked under the pressure, but — with only a bit of hyperbole — the fate of the entire season might rest on the shoulders of a guy who wasn't drafted after playing only one year of cornerback at Miami.

"The guys at the University of Miami historically, they come into an NFL training camp and it's not overwhelming to them. They usually assimilate pretty well," said general manager Ted Thompson, whose decision not to select one of the top cornerbacks in the draft or sign a veteran cornerback in the offseason will rightly come under increased scrutiny if the pass defense gets destroyed like in the playoff game at Arizona or the late-season loss at Pittsburgh.

Thompson's status quo approach in the secondary assumed that either Harris would be ready for Week 1 or one of the returning corners would take a big step forward. Neither has happened. Not only isn't Harris ready, but Brandon Underwood — who's injured anyway — was unable to take his strong practices and carry them over into the games and Pat Lee has fallen just as quickly as Shields has risen.

A fierce pass rush can make even mediocre cover guys look like Pro Bowlers, but the Packers haven't shown they can harass the quarterback, either, though the return of the injured Clay Matthews and Jenkins and some creativity from Capers will help.

When the schedule came out, it was apparent the Packers would have to start fast before facing the Vikings in Week 7, Jets in Week 8, Cowboys in Week 9, Vikings in Week 11 (following the bye) and Falcons in Week 12. Now, the Packers will have to get off to that fast start with a gigantic hole in the secondary.

There's no reason to cancel that February trip to Arlington, Texas, for the Super Bowl just yet. But the Packers' nickel defense is going to have to play like a million bucks, and the odds of that happening just aren't very good with Harris on the sideline.


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, 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.


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