There are reasons why Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews -- the NFL sacks leader with 11.5 -- is having a special season, why recently little-known cornerback Tramon Williams might be playing better than most cornerbacks in the NFL, and why an injury-depleted Green Bay defense has allowed just 10 points over the past three games.
This isn't the same old football-speak about everyone being on the same page. The translation is that in Year 2 of defensive coordinator Dom Capers' version of the 3-4 defense, players understand their roles. They know that in certain cases they have to occupy two blockers so Matthews has an unimpeded path to the quarterback. Williams and fellow cornerback Charles Woodson have to be incredibly efficient in man coverage at times to allow disguised stunts to work effectively.
To pacify egos, something Capers and his staff found out last season, those who sacrifice stats and making plays also have packages designed for them to flash. That's a huge deal because if players don't feel like they're being put in position to succeed, they won't always give you premium effort (see Albert Haynesworth).
Last season, a lot of players in Green Bay were reluctant to embrace the change from the 4-3 front because it marginalized their playmaking skills. Outside linebacker Aaron Kampman's showed displeasure with having to move from defensive end to outside linebacker, a change that did not play to his pass-rushing strengths. Several other players weren't pleased about the switch either, but that's changed now.
"Guys weren't always receptive, but now they understand that there is a role and packages for everybody," the source said. "Guys are playing so unselfish, and they're realizing that when they do their jobs so someone else can make a play, it's just as rewarding."
Green Bay is second in points allowed (14.6) and 12th overall in yards allowed (323.4). They've forced 21 turnovers, including 15 interceptions -- three of those returned for touchdowns.
Players also trust Capers.
In the Packers' 31-3 victory over the Vikings last week -- Brad Childress' last game as head coach -- Green Bay's game plan worked as it was drawn up. Early on, the Packers dared Brett Favre to throw by stacking the box to stop Adrian Peterson and locking up the wide receivers on the edges in man coverage. Nothing new compared to what most teams do. They held Peterson to 72 yards.
In obvious passing situations, Green Bay also ran zone blitzes that applied pressure to the defense's left -- Favre's right -- because Favre prefers to break containment in that direction, and his mobility moving back to his left isn't what it was, the source said. Pressure also was schemed to be applied up the middle because Favre isn't as comfortable on the move, the source said. Adding to things, Green Bay's defensive backs were able to knock Minnesota's receivers off their routes.
Vote: FedEx Air & Ground
That won't be the case Sunday when Green Bay travels to Atlanta to face the 8-2 Falcons in what could turn out to be the game of the week. Not only are the Falcons nearly unbeatable at the Georgia Dome (QB Matt Ryan is 18-1 as a starter at home), they have the best offense the Packers have seen this season, the source said.
"They have plays they can run two ways, they have run-pass options on so many plays," the source said. "They have so many looks. (Offensive coordinator) Mike Mularkey has put together some serious stuff. The quarterback is really comfortable, and he gets rid of the ball. They are really good.
"The offensive line is really good, collectively. Individually, there isn't a Pro Bowler there, but as a group they block through the play, they're tough and they work really well together."
"He's a complete player," the source said. "He's doing things like catching the curl and hook routes he wasn't so good at a few years ago and his yards after the catch, he's really good once he gets the ball in his hands."
Based on what Green Bay has done at times this season, I'd expect Williams to tail White for most of the game, which won't be easy because the Falcons use White from every receiver-eligible spot on the field.
The Packers are looking forward to the challenge, which leads us to the main reason why the defense is playing at such a high level.
"On Victory Monday (this week) there wasn't an empty meeting room," the source said. "Guys were in there watching film and really preparing. That's been the most incredible thing about this, the way guys have taken to preparation and film study on their own. They really want to be good."
The contagious work ethic can't be taken lightly. How else can you explain why a unit that has been hit hard by injuries is arguably playing its best with several frontline players on the shelf?
Thoughts on Frazier
For the past few years, I've heard people from various teams tell me Leslie Frazier has been one of the most impressive people they've met after he's interviewed for head-coaching jobs with their teams. Yet, they didn't hire him. I've always wondered why, but I can't say that some teams, like Atlanta, hired the wrong guy either.
Frazier takes over a tough situation in Minnesota after the firing of Brad Childress this week, but it could be a lot worse. He has a talented team with players who respect him, who could win enough games to increase his viability as someone who really deserves a shot. Minnesota faces beat-up Washington this week and has seemingly winnable games against Buffalo and Detroit, as well. The Giants, Bears and Eagles are on the schedule, too, and those games won't be easy. But it wouldn't stun me if the Vikings knock a few of them off to toy with those teams' playoff hopes.
What will be interesting is if Frazier will be back in Minnesota; it's debatable whether he'd even want the job. There will be a significant roster overhaul, and taking over a team with an unstable quarterback situation -- as it stands now and could be worse next season -- could be the worst thing someone like Frazier could do.
A new front-office structure could also be forthcoming. And when a coach is hired before a GM and feels obligated only to the owner, issues could arise. I have a feeling that Frazier is going to do pretty well with the Vikings the rest of the way, but his future as a head coach will be with another team.
Dansby mans up
We always here players and coaches say, "Adversity doesn't build character; it reveals it." Well, from the media's perspective, we can sometimes judge certain players or locker rooms by how they respond to wins and losses. If a guy speaks after a bad game or bad performance as well as when things are going well, we tend to think of him as a "stand-up" guy. If not, we in the media start to questions things.
In Miami's locker room following its loss last Thursday to Chicago, the media had every right to question things. Only a handful of players -- and when I say handful, I am not exaggerating -- were in the locker room when the media contingent entered, and only a smidgeon of those players spoke: Jake Long, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen, Cameron Wake, among them.
So was linebacker Karlos Dansby, a high-priced free-agent acquisition who understands his role as a leader. After a speaking to a scrum of reporters, Dansby and I chatted for a while and he was really bothered by the defense's performance. He didn't want to mention all of the injuries that have befallen the Dolphins, but he said he had to in order to emphasize the unit's failure.
Defenders watched as player after player on offense went down with injuries, yet the defense didn't help by making stops and allowing whoever was left on offense a shorter field to work with, Danby said. They didn't force the turnovers or seize the opportunities to make big plays when they presented themselves, he added.
A lot of players say that in a canned, rehearsed kind of way, but I've known Dansby for a few years and this was as sincere as he's ever been. He was bothered by what happened on his side of the ball, and I've got a feeling he's not going to let the rest of the defense off easy this week as Miami prepares for the Raiders.
With all of their injuries, I think the Dolphins' playoff chances are through, but Dansby is the type of guy who is going to hold all his teammates accountable the rest of the way.