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Packers' much-maligned defense now sitting atop NFL

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- OK, so no spontaneous shouts of, "We're No. 1!" broke out in the Green Bay Packers' locker room Tuesday -- at least not while reporters were present.

Packers defensive players aren't going to pull any muscles patting themselves on the back for their NFL-best 281.5 yards allowed per game so far this season. They're busy preparing for the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night and other statistics indicate they haven't quite arrived; they're only 12th in points allowed, for example.

All that said, inside linebacker Nick Barnett acknowledges that talking about stingy statistics is a lot more fun than last season, when everyone kept asking why the defense kept letting the team down.

"It feels good to be talking about No. 1 and keeping focused and staying focused, and you like to have that rather than, 'Why is your defense 32nd?'" Barnett said. "But we've got to keep things in perspective. Like I say, you're not No. 1 unless you end the season No. 1, and we know we've got a lot of work ahead of us and still got room to grow."

After their Thanksgiving Day victory at Detroit -- a game that came just days after season-ending injuries to cornerback Al Harris and outside linebacker Aaron Kampman -- the Packers (7-4) have won three straight games to put themselves in good position for an NFC wild-card berth.

And outside of a second-half letdown in a narrow victory over San Francisco on Nov. 22, the defense has led the way. It is showing signs that new coordinator Dom Capers' vision is taking shape after last season's miserable performance led coach Mike McCarthy to replace most of his defensive assistants.

The Packers have been causing turnovers and stopping the run fairly well all year. And after two ugly losses to Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, their pass rush is beginning to come around -- and they're coming up with more stops on third down.

Players say they're simply getting more comfortable with Capers' 3-4 scheme.

"Everybody's getting used to each other, trusting each other, knowing where to be and being there," nose tackle Ryan Pickett said. "That's pretty much it. We just take care of our responsibilities. The scheme is a great scheme coach Capers has us in. We're just playing ball, man. We've got a lot of players and it's like we're coming together."

Defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said the Packers had to go through some growing pains with the new scheme early in the season.

"(We're) getting more familiar," Jenkins said. "I think the linebackers understand where the d-line's going to be, what we're going to do. We're understanding more where the linebackers are going to be, especially the outside linebackers. Just everything. The team's starting to grow within the system, understand it a bit more."

And while the Packers' best defensive player is a veteran -- cornerback Charles Woodson, who has seven interceptions -- they're receiving significant contributions from rookies Clay Matthews III, B.J. Raji and Brad Jones.

"If they didn't have the ability they wouldn't be here, so we know they've got the ability," Jenkins said. "It's just all about being able to put it out there in a game, transfer what you do in practice to the game, and they've done a great job of being able to do that. You have to give them all the respect in the world for that."

Matthews became a consistent contributor early in the season, and Raji has been getting more snaps as he recovers from an ankle injury. Now they're getting significant playing time out of Jones, a seventh-round pick out of Colorado who has taken the majority of snaps opposite Matthews at outside linebacker in the wake of Kampman's injury.

Jones said the rookies don't consider their contributions anything out of the ordinary.

"I hate speaking for all the rookies but I think we've got a consensus when we talk," Jones said. "It's not like we feel like we're a separate group in the team. It just feels like we're on the team, we're part of the team, we're contributing, we're making plays, we're doing our thing."

And don't mention the dreaded "rookie wall" to Raji, who doesn't expect to slow down in the final month of the season.

"What is this 'rookie wall' stuff?," Raji said, making fake quotation marks with his fingers. "I can't speak about something I've never been through."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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