Defense could be Packers' weak link in Super Bowl quest

It's easy to look at Aaron Rodgers' elite passing skills and see why the Green Bay Packers are a popular Super Bowl pick.

It's easy to look at the rest of the considerable offensive talent and agree with the many prognosticators that say the Packers will end its season in North Texas, site of Super Bowl XLV.

What isn't so easy is to reach that same conclusion after looking at the defense. When last seen in a game that counted, the unit allowed all but six of the 51 points the Arizona Cardinals scored in their overtime playoff victory against the Packers last January. Green Bay's offense, meanwhile, produced 45 points.

The Packers' offense is definitely feeling the love this summer. Their defense? Not so much. Last year's No. 2 ranking in the NFL for yards allowed after a difficult transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme carries almost no weight with numerous critics. All they can see is a unit that gives up points far too easily through the air, which is a very bad thing in a pass-oriented league.

"The offense has been getting a lot of praise and a lot of hype," Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins told reporters this week. "But there's still been a lot of questions surrounding the defense and a lot of people second-guessing us or questioning us because of things we've done in the past or how we've started off this year (allowing 24 or more points in each of the first three preseason games). So, as a defense, we still feel like we're playing with something to prove and we still feel like we've got to go out there and show people that we can put out better performances and do a lot better than some of the things we've done in the past."

The chore begins Sunday, and it won't be easy. The Packers open the season on the road in front of the notoriously hostile fans of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles have some impressive offensive playmakers of their own. Their quarterback, Kevin Kolb, is making his first start as a full-time replacement for Donovan McNabb, who was traded to the Washington Redskins in the offseason. In Kolb's two career starts, which came while McNabb was injured last season, he threw for 300-plus yards in back-to-back games.

Besides its reputation for allowing big plays, the Packers' defense also has some significant health issues. Veteran cornerback Al Harris and strong safety Atari Bigby are on the reserve/physically unable to perform list with knee and ankle injuries, respectively. Other defensive starters -- including standout linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) -- have been held out of training camp practices and preseason games, making it difficult for the unit to establish any sort of continuity.

Where can the hope for improvement be found?

"More than anything it's just the (greater) familiarity with the defense," linebacker Brady Poppinga told reporters. "We have a whole year under our belt in this scheme. And me, personally, I'm light years ahead of where I was last year. If you project that onto other guys and just us, collectively, as a defense, I think you can say the same thing. I think familiarity is really what's going to be the biggest difference for our success this year, and it's going to be an improvement from what we saw last year."

This will mark Kolb's first game against a defense fully committed to the 3-4. The Kansas City Chiefs used some 3-4 elements when Kolb led the Eagles to a 34-14 victory over them in Week 3 of last season. But the Chiefs didn't make a full conversion to the scheme until this year, after hiring Romeo Crennel as their defensive coordinator.

Consequently, what little regular-season game tape there is of Kolb for the Packers to study is limited in its value. The preseason film is virtually useless because he didn't run much, if any, of the offense the Eagles will use Sunday. Although Poppinga thinks Kolb has "all the tools to be successful," he sees potential vulnerability in the quarterback's inexperience. And that, as Jenkins pointed out, is something upon which the Packers must capitalize.

"This will be his first season going out there as a true starter, so in that aspect we feel like, as a D-line, you really want to get after him," Jenkins said. "We feel like we can help out the secondary by getting pressure up front."

There also are ways the secondary can help itself. Cornerback Charles Woodson, who is entering his 13th season and was the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year after intercepting nine passes and returning three for touchdowns, already has taken big steps in that direction.

One, he is, as Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, in the best shape of his life. Two, he has improved his upper-body strength after following an offseason conditioning regimen that included boxing drills. Woodson clearly was looking to address the fact that he was manhandled on a pair of touchdown passes he allowed in the wild-card loss to Arizona. The most flagrant was when Larry Fitzgerald tossed Woodson aside like a ragdoll on the way to catching a 33-yard touchdown early in the third quarter. Woodson is known for being physical, and, Whitt told the Press-Gazette, officials caused Woodson to play less aggressively after warning him before the game they intended to keep a closer watch for any defensive holding penalties he might commit.

Woodson is likely to follow the same advice he has offered to rookie Sam Shields, who is going to be the third corner behind Woodson and Harris' replacement, Tramon Williams: "Just go out there and play ball. ... From what I've seen of him so far, he's not afraid of going out there and making a play. That's what this game is all about."

That seems to be the mantra of a defense determined to redeem itself for last January's awful showing in Arizona and change the mind of many skeptics who view it as the Achilles' heel of an otherwise solid Super Bowl contender.

"You just want to get after it," Jenkins said. "You don't want to have those questions swirling around you this year, because if you show something bad on film, teams are going to target you every week for it. So we want to make sure that we're polished on all fronts of the defense and come out swinging."

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