If someone would have stopped you on the street around Labor Day and said the Packers defense would be ranked 29th in the league after three weeks, you would have said, okay, here’s my mortgage, I’ll bet you my mortgage you’re wrong. OK, maybe you would have wagered a Chipotle burrito or something.
But here we are, sitting nicely at 3-0, the only playoff team from a year ago to win its first three games. The Packers’ streak is at nine in a row going back to the Giants game last December which kindled their historic march to the Super Bowl title. Yet the pass defense is getting torched, currently ranking ahead of only New England, a team many (including yours truly) believe will meet the Pack in Indy next February.
One school of thought is the Pack and Pats play with the lead most of the time, forcing teams out of their comfort zone and into more of an aerial attack. I’ll buy that up to a point. We’ve also just witnessed the most prolific opening three weeks in league history, when it comes to points scored, passing yards and passing TDs. So most teams are dealing with catching up to teams’ passing attacks.
The truth is the Pack, like most teams, are scrambling to get their legs under them. The lack of an offseason and the lack of live tackling in the new CBA deal has them in catch-up mode. Though they haven’t been hit as hard as some teams, the Packers have also played without a starting defensive end (Mike Neal) and either a Pro Bowl corner (Tramon Williams) or a Pro Bowl safety (Nick Collins) the last two weeks and have been forced to alter the way they like to do things. Top it off with the fact that Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews are barely practicing, so as not to worsen the minor injuries they’re nursing.
The good news is that while the Pack has been lousy against the pass, they’ve been terrific against the run, ranked #1 in the league, giving up just 55 yards per game. Just like the Steelers D they were patterned after, they are taking on an identity of an impenetrable front seven that forces you to throw and then unleashes the pass rush. While Matthews’ numbers aren’t there yet, the coaches insist he’s playing at a higher level than he ever has. And the team is tied for fourth in the league with ten sacks through three games.
This week we’ll get a much clearer picture about where this defense is. The Broncos are the definition of mediocre on offense. Kyle Orton is the de facto starter, while the entire fan base calls out for the beginning of the Tim Tebow era. The Broncos think so highly of last year’s #1 pick that he’s not even #2 on the depth chart. They list Tebow and A.J. Hawk’s brother-in-law as co-number two’s. Bronco insiders believe next year’s starting QB is not currently on the roster.
Orton is working without two of his top receivers, Eddie Royal and Demariyus Thomas, giving former Gopher Eric Decker a chance to showcase his skills. But they have no Brandon Marshall, no go-to guy that could give the Packers fits. The running game, with Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee ranks 28th in the league–so they will have a hard time moving the ball on the ground.
Orton does lead the league in one category: passes deflected at the line of scrimmage, with seven so far. Look for the Packer defenders to have their hands in the air to add to that number. This is an offense devoid of true playmakers and the Packers have no business allowing them to score more than ten points.
If Orton puts up more than 250 yards (he’s been averaging 210/game) at Lambeau, there is real reason for concern. This is a sandwich game between road games against the two teams the Pack beat before the Super Bowl, Chicago and Atlanta. There’s no room for a letdown. This is the kind of game where the defense must re-assert itself. Or else, serious teeth-gnashing will ensue.