After seven games the Packers defense is ranked 15th in the NFL, allowing an average of 327.9 yards per game. Green Bay is No. 26 in the league in rushing defense and No. 9 against the pass.
In Sunday's win over the Colts, the defense shut out Peyton Manning and his high-octane offense for more than three full quarters. After the Colts scored on their opening drive of the game, they did not score again until less than two minutes remained in the contest, when the outcome was long decided.
The defense had two more interceptions in that game to increase its league-leading total to 13, and it returned both of them for touchdowns, the second game this year the defense has returned two picks for scores. Safety Nick Collins and cornerback Charles Woodson each have two of those touchdowns, and they have posted four interceptions apiece, tied for the league lead.
In the second of a three-part series of conversations with the team's coordinators, Packers.com sat down with third-year defensive coordinator Bob Sanders during the bye week to take a look back at the first seven games and look ahead to the rest of the '08 season.
Your unit has dealt by far with the most injuries so far - a thin defensive line and key injuries in the secondary. How big of a challenge has that been, and how do you feel the players have handled it?
[ul]Certainly anytime you lose guys it's a challenge, but if you're not careful you can use that as an excuse, and we don't make any excuses. The expectation here in Green Bay is if you're a backup and someone goes down in front of you, then your time is up. That's why we place such a big emphasis on the offseason program, our guys being here, and playing sound fundamentally and those types of things, so when your chance comes, you're ready to go.
There's certainly a lot of plays we'd like to have back - an alignment here or a technique here. But our guys have responded extremely well. The work ethic has been very good. The guys have tried to do everything we've asked them to do. Have we gotten it done every single time? I'd be hesitant to say yes on that. But as far as the work ethic, the attitude, it's been phenomenal.
We've got some good leaders on our defensive side with Aaron (Kampman) and Charles (Woodson) and Nick Barnett, and of course a lot of guys have fought through injuries, A.J. Hawk. I can't say enough about him. Brandon (Chillar) and Brady Poppinga have been solid guys that haven't gotten hurt. We have a lot of guys who have been steadying influences on the young guys. And the young guys have stepped up and played with emotion.
We've had some moments that weren't some of our best, but it's not because guys weren't working hard or trying to do the right thing. We've gotten a lot of young guys experience, so I think that will help us in the long run. When we get some of those injured guys back, it will make our depth that much better. Ted and Mike have done a good job getting us talented guys, so when we've had guys go down, we've had guys we could put in there and play.
The guys have been unselfish. They've changed positions. Aaron Kampman was rushing inside yesterday. Will Blackmon double-trains. Jarrett Bush double-trains. Poppinga and Brandon and Desmond (Bishop), all those guys have double-trained to try to help out. The team has pulled together and we've tried to make it work and the attitude has been great.[/ul]
After he got 12 interceptions in his first two seasons here, did you think it was possible for Charles Woodson to play even better? Have you ever seen a player come close to what he's done - missing practically every practice but playing at a Pro Bowl level?
[ul]He's such a professional. He's so instinctive. He plays physical, he plays strong. He's a really good technician. He's a consummate pro as far as his preparation and communication, and one of the most instinctive guys that you could ever hope to be around. It doesn't surprise me, the things that he's done, it really doesn't, because I know how hard he works and I watch him work and I watch his effort and his attention to detail. The plays that he makes, the positions he's in, the things that he sees are the mark of a true professional, and he is that.[/ul]
Is there a player on your unit who hasn't gotten a lot of headlines yet who could be on the verge of a breakout in the second half this year?
[ul]We've got a lot of young guys who have done a great job. Starting up front, Johnny Jolly plays with a lot of emotion and enthusiasm. Colin Cole has had two outstanding games in a row. Jeremy Thompson stepped in Sunday and did a nice job. I've already shared a little about the linebacking group. And in the back end, you've got Will Blackmon and Tramon (Williams) have stepped up. Jarrett Bush is a double-trained guy. Charlie Peprah has stepped in there and played well.
In each segment there's a guy that has risen up. It will be fun to watch the rest of the year as the guys continue to get better and get more experience as they're called on. Because in this league, you always expect the unexpected, and there's always somebody. The thing we have to work on with all those guys is consistency. We'll get two or three good plays and then there will be a bad play, and it's not any one guy. We'll spread that around. But we have to work toward finishing the games, and I think as these guys get more experience, that type of thing will come.[/ul]
Was it a challenge to keep the defense emotionally up after losing leaders like Cullen Jenkins and Al Harris?
[ul]No, not really, because Mike does such a great job setting the tempo and the direction of the organization. We have a lot of young guys that are excited every day, and if one guy has a misfortune, then that's another guy's opportunity. Certainly we miss those guys, but those other guys have an opportunity to step up and be a main cog, an opportunity to start or be a real good backup. It gives them a lot of spark. And then some guys who have been the veteran stalwarts, who have the experience, they've stepped up. They've said, 'Hey, we may have to do even more,' and they'll continue to do that. When you have that kind of attitude, you don't really have to worry about guys getting down because the attitude is, 'Hey, we have to find a way.'[/ul]
With Atari Bigby and Harris nearing a return to the field, how beneficial will it be for the team in the long run that guys like Aaron Rouse, Williams and Blackmon saw such significant time?
[ul]Tramon is a starter anyway, because he's been a starter in our nickel package. But certainly Will did a great job Sunday on Harrison. Those guys getting experience is invaluable. It goes back to that offseason program, everybody being here, getting those fundamentals down and working those fundamentals every day in practice, so when that time comes, you're ready. Then if you have an injury, guys are ready to go, and then when guys come back off injury, it gives you more depth and more options. The experience has been invaluable and those guys will continue to get better.[/ul]
It seems like Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has been more active and around the ball the past two games. Do you feel like he may be turning the corner and getting healthier?
[ul]Hopefully so. It looks like he is. He was very, very active Sunday in the game, really had a nice game against Indianapolis. So hopefully he's starting to get healthy. With the off week, a lot of guys hopefully will get the rest they need and come back stronger and ready to go.[/ul]
Do you feel like Nick Collins is reaching his potential as a playmaker and how pleased have you been with his play overall?
[ul]Nick has been very, very good. As far as another year in the system and getting himself in position and making the plays when he has the opportunity to make them, he's had an outstanding start. He's been the quarterback back there, a guy that studies the game. He knows what we're trying to get done. The communication has been much better this year.
He's a guy that has always had a tremendous amount of athleticism. He's instinctive, but certainly now, with him getting in better position and staying in position, and then breaking on the balls that he sees thrown, he's starting to come into his own. If he continues, which I believe he will, hopefully he'll be one of the premier safeties in the league from a playmaker standpoint. He's tackled very well, good low tackler. He's played physical, he's played nicked, and he's made some tremendous plays for us.[/ul]
Have you been impressed with rookies Jeremy Thompson and Pat Lee, guys you probably weren't expecting to have to rely on this early?
[ul]Those guys have to grow up by the week. The last two weeks Jeremy has gotten more playing time than Pat, but certainly is getting indoctrinated under fire and is playing at a high level. 'Big Daddy' (defensive ends coach Carl Hairston) has done a good job with him. There were some instances in the Colts game, some things would happen and we'd have to adjust him a little bit. He's a guy who could make those adjustments and later in the game would make the play, off the same look. Him continuing to improve, taking care of himself, continuing to get strong, will help us, and the experiences that he's getting are going to be invaluable. I think he's a work in progress, and Pat, same thing, a work in progress. He just has to keep a sense of urgency and continue to get better each and every day in practice. With Will and those guys, we had some young guys in front of a young guy, so he hasn't had to take the whole load, but when he's been in there, he's done some nice things.[/ul]
What kind of impact could Justin Harrell have the rest of this season, provided he can stay healthy?
[ul]I don't want to put a heavy burden on Justin, because it's not about one guy. Football is a team game. It's not about one segment or one guy or one side of the ball. It's about a team. But certainly he's a big body and we like big bodies inside. He's worked hard. Our strength staff has done a good job with him, and our training staff. He's in the best shape he's been in in a while. (Defensive tackles coach) Robert (Nunn) has a good plan to break him back in, and he had a good week last week. He has a lot of athleticism. He's a big body, big length. Certainly big guys can make an impact, so we'll bring him along and hopefully he'll be ready to go soon.[/ul]
What's the most important area you've targeted for improvement during the bye week?
[ul]We're just starting the process, but when you go back and look at the situations in the games that you can try to improve on, there's some of the run game we have to improve on, staying in our gap and being more consistent with our fundamentals and techniques. You maybe look at a couple blitz situations and how we can better utilize our personnel, those types of things.
Then there's some things that encourage you as well. When you self-evaluate, it's not all about finding out what's wrong, it's about finding out what's right, so you can build on that too. There's a lot of good things our guys are doing. We just have to improve on the areas we have been weak and continue to build on the areas we've been pretty good. I think that's what a good team does, and our guys are hungry to do that. They want to know, they want to be good. Like I said, we've got good leadership on defense, a lot of guys who have been in the wars, a certain level of toughness that you play at. There's a lot of positives, and the negatives, we just have to look at and learn from them and move on.[/ul]
How good did it feel to have this defense perform like it did against the Colts, and what can a performance like that do for the guys the rest of the season?
[ul]Certainly, you want to win the game. That's the main thing. It feels good to win. But it's just one game. It was just that game. There were a lot of things that hopefully we can build on. The enthusiasm, the emotion that we played with. The technique that we played with. The heightened sense of awareness, the sense of urgency. All those things, hopefully our guys learned and will build on that and just get better at those things and play at a high level, because I think our guys know when you play at a high level the good things that can happen. But that was just one game, we'll learn from it, build on it, hopefully get some rest, get healthy, learn from the mistakes that we made the first part of the season and hopefully progress down the stretch when things matter even more.[/ul]