It was a given before the season started that the Green Bay Packers had cornerstones in the two most important defensive roles in football ó Charles Woodson as a cover corner, as well as roving ballhawk and blitzer, and Clay Matthews as a pass rusher ó to have an outstanding defense.
But what has been instrumental in the Packersí defense continuing to play at a high level despite significant injuries and to pitch a shutout Sunday against the New York Jets is the emergence of nose tackle B.J. Raji and cornerback Tramon Williams in their first seasons as fulltime starters. Throw in safety Nick Collins and the Packers have five defenders playing near a Pro Bowl caliber level.
Raji is an explosive force. His ability to get upfield has caused havoc in the running game, and he collapses the pocket in the passing game and makes opposing quarterbacks uneasy about stepping up. Most teams double him. They have to. The Jets have maybe the best center in the game in Nick Mangold and maybe the best offensive line, and they were pulling their guards, so they didnít double Raji as much. But when they did, he blew it up.
Raji was better than Mangold without question. Thatís the kind of performance that can be a ticket to the Pro Bowl.
Raji doesnít get pushed around ó maybe a little at the end of the game against Minnesota. But for a 3-4 defense to be successful, it has to have an anchor in the middle. If your nose tackle is getting driven back, your linebackers have to climb over the top and that gives the opposing running back angles to make plays. The longest gain by one of the Jetsí running backs was 8 yards.
Itís obvious why the Packers moved Ryan Pickett and gave Raji his job. Pickett was good at standing his ground and flowing down the line of scrimmage. What he didnít have was Rajiís quickness off the ball and ability to penetrate. If the other teamís center and guards donít get push, their running backs have to change direction sooner than they want. Get the running back off track and he has to find another hole, maybe take a step back, and that allows the linebackers and safeties to get where they need to be. Plus, Pickett was nothing more than a stalemate kind of guy as a pass rusher.
Williams is playing so much more aggressively than last year. Physically, heís the same player. Mentally, he has taken a big leap and looks so much more confident. He attacks the ball; he attacks receivers. Heís making receivers play off of him instead of him just reacting to receivers.
Williams always had exceptionally good hips and the ability to change direction, and thatís as important as any trait for a cornerback. Thatís what he offers over Al Harris. Harris was physical and played well at the line of scrimmage, but he wasnít as fluid in the hips as Williams. That was why Harris had his problems against Plaxico Burress in the NFC championship three years ago. He couldnít get his hips around to go after the ball.
Howard Green, Erik Walden
It just goes to show that teams can find players on the street that are just as good, if not better, than ones on their roster. And that doesnít just apply to teams that are rebuilding.
Green looks like a nice pickup. He made a big play on the reverse. Heís a big-butt body that eats up space and doesnít get backed off the ball. Walden looks like he could help, too, as a pass rusher. Just in limited snaps, you could see explosiveness. Frank Zombo may be a better player at this point, but Walden looks like a better athlete. The way he was low to the ground when he turned the corner caught your eye.
But give the coaches credit, too. Green comes in on Friday and plays a key role Sunday. Thatís a real tribute to a coaching staff.
Thereís an example of an injury that saved the coaches from their own mistake. They handed Morgan Burnett the job because he was a high draft pick, and Peprah has been the better player. Between Peprah and Woodson, when he was playing up at the line in nickel, you donít find many defensive backs who will give up their bodies and take out linemen the way they did Sunday. Peprah is playing tough football. Part of it is that you get a guy like that ó 27 years old, never really given a shot ó and heís hungry.
Desmond Bishop might have played his best game. He seemed to press the line of scrimmage better. He didnít seem to be hesitating as much. His first step was quicker and thatís crucial for a linebacker who doesnít have exceptional speed.
Sam Shields made a heck of a tackle on that screen pass and he came all the way across the field to shove Brad Smith out of bounds on that 47-yard return. That could have been a touchdown.
C.J. Wilson was solid again at the point of attack. Good run player.