Two weeks ago I was talking to a friend, explaining why, despite my desperate need, I didn’t have an interest in the Packers defense for my fantasy football team. “They’re one injury away from being a very mediocre defense.”
When Al Harris went down, my buddy said: “I’m guessing this is what you meant.”
“No,” I said. “I think they can survive this. They’ve got some decent depth in the secondary. I was talking about the defensive line.”
That was just before the Tampa game. Now we’re in real trouble.
I had somewhat modest expectations for the Packers coming into this season — for reasons that, in hindsight, turn out to be wrong. I assumed the running game would be strong and consistent, as it was at the end of last year, and that even with a quick passing game to ease Aaron Rodgers’ transition we’d struggle a bit through the air. The opposite has been true, of course.
But on defense, after the loss of Corey Williams I was particularly concerned with depth — and quality depth. Justin Harrell is injured once again — not available until after the sixth game of the season. KGB had a decent number of sacks last year but most of them came in garbage time and several came in one game. He has been utterly ineffective this season. Johnny Jolly has not been having the kind of impact he had last year. Colin Cole has been invisible. And Ryan Pickett seems a half-step slower this year.
Now, Cullen Jenkins is out. With all due respect to Aaron Kampman, Jenkins has been our best defensive lineman through four games. Leave aside all of the other injuries on defense — AJ Hawk, Al Harris, Atari Bigby — this is the one that will hurt the most.
Michael Montgomery will assume most of Jenkins’ duties. That sentence alone should tell you how much trouble we’re in. Nothing against Montgomery, of course, he’s apparently a hard worker who has made the most of NFL opportunity after being selected in the sixth round of the 2005 draft.
It’s time to adjust our expectations. The defense is going to struggle. Through the first four games, the Packers were ranked 26th against the run — and that was with everyone healthy and with Jenkins, a wide body with surprising quickness, in the mix. Every coach will be looking to exploit that weakness and unless Harrell comes back and plays like the 17th overall pick that Ted Thompson spent to acquire him, it’s going to get very, very ugly.
On offense, the offensive line has been as bad as Aaron Rodgers has been good. Rodgers had a tough game on Sunday, but he’s otherwise been solid to very good. Did he struggle against Tampa because he did not have protection? Yes. Did he struggle because we had very little run game? Yes. Did he struggle because Tampa had three game tapes on him and exploited his weaknesses? Maybe. That’s all bad news.
Last year, Cleveland’s Derek Anderson started the second game of the season and lit it up through first half of the year. Then, suddenly, he struggled. There were all sorts of reasons that his play was not as good, but the fact that teams had seen him play and knew how to gameplan against him was a big one. That may be happening to Rodgers.
The offensive line has been bad. It’s probably true that they need a game to get back in synch after the injury to Scott Wells and his subsequent return. But after several seasons as the line’s unheralded star, Chad Clifton has been mediocre. The two guards remain a problem, though Spitz is likely a long-term starter. (I don’t think Daryn Colledge is.)
The special teams units are a mess, too. Derrick Frost should have been cut on Monday. It’s a stupid mistake because it was so avoidable. Jon Ryan was a decent punter — not great, but not bad. His shanks were a problem and coming at the wrong time could cost us games. But Frost is just not that good.
And the kicking game has been okay, despite the new long snapper and new holder. (With just one botched exchange.) There will likely be more adjustments when Frost is cut and Mason Crosby will have yet another holder.
Bottom line: Given this string of injuries and their tough schedule, it looks like the Packers will be lucky to be a .500 team this year. (I had them at 9-7 at the beginning of the year.) And the favorite to win the NFC North? The Chicago Bears.