What’s making the Pack slack?

By Lou DiPietro  |   Wednesday, December 10, 2008  |  Comments( 0 )

Green Bay Packers
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It’s about that time where the surprise teams of the NFL season are really found. Whether it be the Tennessee Titans (who expected them to be 12-1?), the Jacksonville Jaguars (who expected them to be 4-9?) or even the Detroit Lions (0-13 is obviously a brand-new low), it’s late enough now that we know what teams are capable of.

In 2008, one of those surprise teams is the Green Bay Packers. At 5-8, they currently sit in third place in the NFC North. To borrow a golf term, every game is a “dormie” game for the Pack; their next loss (or division leader Minnesota’s next win) will eliminate them from postseason contention.

Quite a mighty fall for a team that just last year finished 13-3, clinched its division on Thanksgiving and lost in overtime in the NFC title game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Naturally, the knee-jerk reaction to the question of why is, of course, Brett Favre. Jettisoned out of town in the summer after retiring and then unretiring faster than you can say Daunte Culpepper, Favre was the only man who had held the keys to the Pack’s offense since a Bush sat in the White House and the world was suffering from a global economic recession.

Go ahead, laugh at me, not with me. I’ll wait.

Anyway, back to the point. Much like America’s voters in 2008, the Packers' front office was ready for change. After all, Aaron Rodgers had to learn something in three years under Favre’s “tutelage,” right? He was surely capable of replacing a legend, especially one on the downside of his career.

And so the fiasco ended, as Favre boarded a plane to Newark International and the “Frozen Tundra” became Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. Granted, all St. Brett has done is continue his Cal Ripkenesque streak of consecutive starts, lead the Jets to an 8-5 record -- tied for first in the AFC East -- and play his way into MVP contention.

But it turns out that the Packers were right, too. Why? Because the Rodgers-led offense isn’t the problem.

Through Week 13, Rodgers had 3,192 yards, 22 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That projects out to approximately 3,929 yards, 27 scores and 14 picks if Rodgers finishes out the season. Last year, Favre threw for 4,155 yards, 28 TDs and 15 INTs for the Pack. Not exactly a big drop-off.

Even if it is, the running game has picked it up. Last year, Ryan Grant emerged late in the season as the Pack’s top back, but the trio of Grant, Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn posted 1,426 yards and 13 TDs. So far this season, Grant has surpassed his 2007 rushing total and Jackson is close; because of that, they are on pace to put up over 1,500 yards. And while they only have five touchdowns between them, Rodgers has picked up the slack in that department with four scoring runs of his own.

Great. So the offense hasn’t missed a beat. Then what’s really the cause of this team's spiral?

The defense, of course.

In 2007, the Packers' defense was, in a word, nasty. They gave up only 291 points (sixth in the league), allowed just six rushing touchdowns and had a ridiculous pass rush to complement their ball-hawking secondary.

Up front, the defensive line recorded 31 1/2 sacks -- all but three by Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman (12), Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (9 1/2) and Corey Williams (seven). Their starting linebackers chipped in 4 1/2 sacks and four interceptions, with middle linebacker Nick Barnett’s 102 tackles good for fourth in the league.

As if that wasn’t enough, their secondary was amazing. Corners Charles Woodson and Al Harris shut down most of the league and combined for six picks, with Harris going to the Pro Bowl. Strong safety Atari Bigby played a better “center field” than Ichiro at times, finishing third on the team with 66 tackles and leading the squad with five INTs.

Quite the statistical accumulation there. This year? Not so much. Already, the defense has allowed 319 points, and while the Packers' front seven was amazing last year, the group has already let up 19 rushing TDs (26th in the league). That’s almost Lions and Chiefs territory.

For starters, the line is a mess. Kampman again leads the squad with 9 1/2 sacks and may again see the Pro Bowl. Beyond that, it’s the Bad News Bears. Their second-leading quarterback dropper, Cullen Jenkins, has all of 2 1/2 sacks -- and he hasn’t played since September because of injury. Williams is in Cleveland and KGB, currently in the top 10 among active players in sacks, had all of half a sack when he was released on Nov. 1 so the Pack could activate Justin Harrell -- who has exactly zero career sacks -- from the physically unable to perform list. As a unit, they’ve only dropped opposing quarterbacks 21 times, a far cry from the 36 of 2007. Currently third on the team in sacks? Woodson, who has two.

The linebacking corps hasn’t been much better, and that wasn’t helped when Barnett tore a knee ligament that ended his season about a month ago. AJ Hawk has seemingly regressed yet still leads the team in tackles with 52, and Brady Poppinga is, well, Brady Poppinga.

The secondary has been the lone bright spot, even with Harris missing time thanks to a ruptured spleen and Bigby crashing back to earth. Woodson has been his usual good self, as he, fill-in corner Tramon Williams and free safety Nick Collins share the team lead with five picks apiece. Collins also sits second behind Hawk with 48 tackles.

Defense wins championships. Your best offense is a good defense. Pick your cliché, but when it comes to Green Bay’s defense, it’s easy to see why clichés are true and the Packers are 5-8. But you know what the best part is? They can still win the NFC North. Yeah, it’s a long shot, but work with me here.

As bad as the Packers have been, they’ve shown some fire. And despite a brutal schedule -- 11 of their 13 games have been against teams currently over .500, with the 12th versus 6-7 Houston -- five of their eight losses are by four points or fewer. They lost to Tennessee in overtime and nearly swept Minnesota. And on the plus side, they’ve trounced both Chicago and Indianapolis.

Plus, as bad as their schedule has been, it gets much, much easier. After road games at 4-9 Jacksonville and then Chicago, the Packers finish their slate against 0-13 Detroit. And while Detroit may be looking to avoid an imperfect season, that’s two winnable games plus a Chicago team the Pack already trounced at Lambeau. That would put Green Bay at 8-8.

The Bears have New Orleans and at Houston left, so a loss in either of those games puts them at 8-8. As for Minnesota -- which is this year’s Browns, I believe, but that’s another column -- it has at Arizona, Atlanta and the Giants left. Arizona is outstanding at home, Atlanta should be fighting for its playoff life and the Giants are the Giants. Even though a Week 16 win over Carolina could wrap up home field for the G-Men, they play well on the road and won’t slack off. Plus, if the Vikings have to start Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback instead of the injured Gus Frerotte, they’re historically in trouble as it is. If all three teams (or even just Minnesota and Green Bay) finish 8-8, the Packers’ 5-1 division record would give them the tiebreaker, and thus, a date to get most likely clobbered by Tampa Bay once again.

Of course, I might as well be George Costanza, considering how the opposite of everything I write about happens. Hey, maybe next week I should write about the Lions winning a game. . .
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About Lou DiPietro

Lou DiPietro is an accomplished freelance writer who is fascinated with all things sports. In addition to his duties at RealFootball365.com, Lou contributes to TheBleacherReport.com and Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine, and has been featured on "The Sports Buffet with Matt West" on 1080-AM ESPN...
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