I’ve been shouting “the sky is falling” in regards to the Green Bay Packers run defense for years, but now I’m really starting to worry. Following the loss of linebacker D.J. Smith, the Packers’ linebacker unit is getting a bit thin to the point where Packer fans are saying things like, “We have somebody named Robert Francois on our team??”
One of the bright spots among the linebackers has always been Desmond Bishop. Last year’s leading tackler, Bishop could always be counted on. Imagine my horror when Bishop goes out for the year before the season even started! Even though Bishop’s loss was a huge one to Green Bay, D.J. Smith has stepped in and played quite well. He’s not a brick wall, but he’s a solid tackler and hasn’t given up any huge plays. Now he’s gone for the season, too!
The weakness of the Packers’ run defense has long been hidden for two reasons. One is that, as we all can see, fewer and fewer teams rely on the run game much anymore. There just are not too many team left that are primary running teams so the Packers’ run defense is not challenged as frequently as maybe it should be.
The second reason is that the Packers’ offense has the ability to jump out to early leads and force opposing teams to be one-dimensional. You can’t really run the ball when you’re down by 20. Just ask the Houston Texans. The Packers were able to do this all of last season and it took the pressure off stopping the run and gave the false impression that the rushing defense wasn’t that bad. The offense has been less spectacular and less consistent this season which could spell trouble for the Packers on defense.
The bad news is that the unit becomes more dependent on A.J. Hawk, whom I can’t stand. I don’t know if it’s his Frankenstein face, his limp-armed tackling, or seeing him jog into the TV frame 10 yards too late, but something about the man irks me. In his defense, however, he hasn’t been terrible this year so far. That’s the best I can say. The Packers face the St. Louis Rams and Steven Jackson on Sunday. Jackson has had a slow start this year, but the Packers defense may provide him with a breakout game.
Smith will mostly likely be replaced by Brad Jones and Robert Francois. I was super high on Jones as a rookie, but near-constant injuries to start his career cost him a chance at playing time and he’s been mostly relegated to special teams ever since. I’ll be interested to see how he does. Francois hasn’t seen much action, either, outside of a little spot duty last year due to injuries. Like Jones, he gets most of his snaps on special teams.
Now, I just have to talk myself off this ledge here. Maybe losing D.J. Smith won’t be so devastating. Maybe the Packers defense can continue to improve. Jones and Francois have played well in the little time they have had on the field. Clay Matthews has vastly improved his run coverage. The Packers did a great job last week against Arian Foster. B.J. Raji has been ruled out for Sunday, but did practice a bit this week and looks to be on track for a return the following week. Since the Packers have not yet put together back-to-back wins, I’m not ready to declare the offense back to its 2011 form, but they looked good against the Houston Texans last week. The offense could be the Packers’ run defense’s biggest asset. If Aaron Rodgers and the offense can continue to put teams in big holes early, less responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the linebackers. It is indicative of my trepidation that my biggest hope for the defense is the offense, but I do think the Packers will be able to survive the loss of Smith, and that the “next man up” philosophy that powered them through to the Super Bowl in 2010 will come through again.