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Packers much healthier coming into playoffs, but defense needs boost

by | CBSSports.com
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Greg Jennings grinned and paused to survey the Green Bay Packers' football-shaped locker room, an expansive, elliptical space bordered by handsome, wooden stalls each containing a green jersey and an overhead name placard.

He saw the names of seven Pro Bowl players, a few future Hall of Famers and an MVP favorite. More significantly, as Jennings and his teammates prepared for Sunday's divisional-round playoff game against the Giants, the wide receiver saw almost all the same names he had seen when the season began.

One of the main reasons the Packers went 15-1 in the regular season and captured the NFC's No. 1 seed was that they stayed healthy. Relatively healthy. Sure, there were plenty of injuries, and many at crucial positions. But the Packers generally dodged the serious and season-ending blows that so ruthlessly beset them last year.

Only six players were placed on injured reserve, including just one starter. Compare that to last year, when Lambeau Field's rent-a-locker room was a revolving door right onto the trainer's table. The eventual Super Bowl winners started their postseason run with 15 Packers, including six starters, on IR. Had Jennings glanced around then, he would have squinted at many of the names around him -- numerous "street" free agents and promoted practice squad players signed midway through the season.

"It feels good," Jennings said Wednesday, after a practice in which he felt like "new money" because he participated fully and his sprained left knee held up completely. "It's definitely a different feeling to have a lot of guys healthy, especially some of the guys that didn't get to participate in the success we had last year. It's exciting to go out there as a team with pretty much our full arsenal."

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Last year's offense wasn't fully loaded, and it struggled for weeks to adapt to the early losses of impact players like running back Ryan Grant (Week 1) and tight end Jermichael Finley (Week 5). The late-season surge was buttressed by the defense; the depleted offense scored just enough to get into -- and through -- the playoffs.

The record-setting 2011 version scored more than enough. Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers regularly rendered prattling pundits speechless (momentarily), leaving them to grasp for fresh adjectives to describe his peerless play (45 touchdowns, six interceptions and an NFL-record 122.5 passer rating). And whereas last year Jennings bore the brunt of the attention of opposing secondaries -- especially after Finley went down -- this season he had plenty of help.

Jordy Nelson emerged as not only a worthy complement to Jennings, but an equally devastating deep threat, catching seven passes of at least 40 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns.

The returns of Grant and Finley this season only enriched a loaded offense. Grant's season-ending ankle injury in the first game of 2010 reverberated throughout the Packers' offense. A heretofore run-first offense sunk to 24th in rushing and lacked balance until then-rookie James Starks provided a postseason spark.

Now, after struggling to find a rhythm earlier in the year, Grant enters the playoffs having gained 5.9 yards per carry in the final four weeks of the year, showing speed and decisiveness not evident since 2009. He and a finally healthy Starks, who has battled ankle problems much of the season, could mitigate the impact of the Giants' potentially devastating pass rush.

Another weapon that should factor in is Finley, who played every game this season for the first time in his four-year career. Often the focus of opposing coordinators, Finley caught 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns. But he also absorbed frequent double teams that opened up teammates in the passing game. And that third-ranked passing game helped the offense lead the league in scoring with a franchise-best 35 points per game.

Such a prolific offense provided the grounds for, and helped overcome, the Packers' shortcomings on defense. Green Bay took big, early leads on many of their opponents, which forced the defense to sustain heavy bombardment from teams playing from behind. The defense allowed a league-worst 411.6 yards per game, a far cry from the 309.1 surrendered in 2010.

What contributed to the dropoff? Surely, the answer must lie deeper than the occupational hazard of being frequently ahead.

"Numbers are numbers," defensive end Ryan Pickett said, "they don't lie. We give up a lot of yards, whether it's from blown coverages or missing a gap or just being outplayed. We're not happy about it, but it is what it is. We can't do anything about it but improve in the postseason."

Pickett said the defense is looking at the playoffs as a blank slate. One area that's begging for a fresh start -- or perhaps a return to the past -- is the pass rush.

The Packers were second in the NFL in sacks last year with 47, including 18 by a disruptive defensive line. This year the team managed just 29, and the down linemen have been far less penetrating, accounting for just six.

Further aggravating the pass rush problem has been the season-long void at right outside linebacker. The position, opposite Clay Matthews -- a victim of near-constant double teams -- was never definitively won. Now, heading into the Giants game, it appears ineffective Erik Walden has lost his starting spot, probably to Brad Jones, as the Packers try to generate some degree of pass-rush pressure. The deficient rush further burdened a beleaguered secondary, contributing to an eye-opening allowance of yards.

All season, though, the defense clung to a mantra of bend, don't break. As in, give up the yards, but withhold the points. Despite their dead-last finish in total defense, they were 19th in points allowed. But can that generous approach work against superior offenses in the playoffs?

"It has all year," Matthews said. "Hopefully it can again. The most important thing we can do is create turnovers and give the ball back to our offense."

And that's exactly what Green Bay's defense has done all season. The Packers recorded an NFL-high 31 interceptions, often relying on takeaways to negate the acres of yards they allowed. In a 38-35 win over the Giants in early December, the Packers allowed 447 yards but forced two turnovers, including an interception Matthews returned for a touchdown.

"We led the league in [interceptions], so the defense is doing something right," Pickett said. "We definitely had some good games this year, but we also had a lot of bad ones."

Whether Green Bay's defense has a good game or a bad one on Sunday will likely determine whether or not its season ends. Last year, as the sixth-seeded wild card, with a dominant defense and a superlative quarterback, the Packers won three road games before beating the Steelers in the Super Bowl. This season, they have the same QB and a frigid home-field advantage. But to repeat, the defense must revert back to its superior 2010 form.

Can that happen?

"You definitely can change. Just like the Giants' running game changed in the playoffs," linebacker Desmond Bishop said, referencing New York's 32nd-ranked rushing offense gaining 172 yards in last week's wild-card win over the Falcons. "None of the stats really matter in the playoffs, it's a whole new season. You're only as good as your last performance."

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