Through this season's first eight games, the Packers allowed opponents only 260.3 yards and 12.9 points per game, and they were ranked first in the NFL in both categories. Meanwhile, 62-year-old defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, who had taken over when Ray Rhodes returned to his old job with the Niners, was being touted as a great motivator and innovator. Now suddenly, in the last five games, Shurmur has lost his Midas touch. The Packers have lost three of those five, and their defense has allowed a whopping 391.8 yards and 29 points per game.
What happened? It seems the entire defense deteriorated all at once. The pass rush, with its front line of Reggie White, 32; Sean Jones, 31; and Steve McMichael, 37, started showing its age. (In the past five games White has had only two sacks; he had six before that.) The linebackers have been mediocre. Outside linebacker Bryce Paup, who was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, has been quiet during the Pack's three straight losses, to Buffalo, Dallas and Detroit.
But the defensive secondary appears to be the Pack's most glaring weakness. Strong safety LeRoy Butler, a Pro Bowl player last season, has struggled with illness (pneumonia) and injury (a bruised right shin). Former No. 1 pick Terrell Buckley, a 5'9", 176-pounder who didn't allow a touchdown this year until Green Bay's Week 10 win over Detroit, has been outmuscled the past five weeks by some of the NFL's best big receivers. Opposing quarterbacks have figured out they can burn Buckley by throwing jump balls over his head. Against the Lions on Sunday, the Packers moved Buckley around in the coverage so that he wouldn't have to match up with Detroit's 6'3" wideout, Herman Moore.
And where does Green Bay go from here? No one seems to have an easy solution. "When you start so well, and then all of a sudden you're not making the plays you made earlier, I just don't understand it," says Shurmur. "I don't have the answer, but we've got to find the answer."