Big game calls for big performance by defense

Nick Collins

The Packers' defense has been solid, but not spectacular, and has fallen far short of the preseason hype it helped create, PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence says.

With 5-0 Dallas hosting 5-0 New England on Sunday, the media are frothing at the mouth like a couple of rabid dogs sitting in front of the meat counter at the grocery store.

Oh, what could have been, though.

Had Joe Gibbs not forgotten how to coach in the waning moments against the New York Giants and had the Packers not treated the football like it was covered in angry hornets last week against the Bears, the Packers and Redskins would be entering Sunday's tilt at Lambeau Field with a combined 9-0 record.

Alas, we'll have to settle for merely a combined record of 7-2, and, frankly, a bigger game in the grand scheme of things.

That's especially so for the Packers, who are riding high in first place but could be riding low if they suffer a second consecutive loss heading into next week's bye.

When you looked at the schedule back in late August, you would have thought the games against San Diego and Chicago would have been the toughest on the first half of the tricky season schedule. Looking through the prism of today, however, it's safe to say Sunday's game against the Redskins will be the toughest.

Much has been made of the matchup between Brett Favre and the Packers' receivers against the Redskins' star-studded secondary. Washington is allowing a ridiculously low 4.52 yards per pass attempt this season, while Favre is having a sublime year at this late juncture of his career.

The opposite matchups, however, are just as intriguing, and not just because the Packers' defense needs to step up should the offense falter.

Led by budding quarterback Jason Campbell, Washington ranks fourth in the NFC in offense, including third in rushing and ninth in passing. Campbell has been sacked just five times, a testament not only to his line but the third-year pro's unexpected poise in his first year as the unquestioned starter.

"He's young at quarterback, we know that, but I felt like he made some real good decisions," Gibbs said. "And many times your quarterback, the best decision he makes is when it's not there, when he chooses to do the smart thing."

The Packers' defense, meanwhile, hasn't been bad — not by a long shot — but it hasn't been the standout unit everyone expected.

That group talked boldly of developing into a top-five unit this season. Instead, after five games against not exactly the most potent offenses the NFL has to offer, the Packers rank 17th in the NFL in yards allowed — 14th against the run and a surprising 23rd against the pass — and 12th in points allowed with 18.6 points per game.

Fortunately, the Packers' defense has come up huge at some opportune times — Aaron Kampman's sack and strip of Eli Manning against the Giants, Nick Barnett's interception against the Chargers and Atari Bigby's interception against the Vikings — but overall, this group hasn't met the lofty expectations it set for itself.

A few players haven't taken their necessary and expected steps forward. Chief among them is safety Nick Collins, who has been little more than a tease during his brief career. A.J. Hawk, like the Barnett of last season and 2005, has made a bunch of tackles but few of significance. Bigby was all over the place in the preseason but largely quiet during the first five games.

"I think our defense has played outstanding in spurts and has played very good for the most part," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "But we're having those explosive gains come up … three, four a game that's really not giving them the opportunity to close an offense out."

While hardly disappointments, Charles Woodson — who had eight interceptions last season but is looking for his first this season — and Al Harris haven't been quite as dominant. That's led to the pass defense's disappointing ranking and an abundance of "explosive plays" — 26 completions of at least 16 yards, including the huge breakdown that led to Desmond Clark's late 34-yard, go-ahead touchdown that lifted the Bears last week.

So far, it's been the surprising Packers offense that's been carrying the team. Sunday's showdown would be a perfect time for a talented Packers defense to play up to the hype it created.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com

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