Through the month of their recently completed training camp, if you were to talk to anyone on the defensive side of the ball for the Green Bay Packers, all you would hear about was the new, aggressive nature they would be bringing to the 2004 season under first-year coordinator Bob Slowik.
In Monday night's season opening win at Carolina, those promises came to fruition as the men in the green shirts attacked Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme from a number of different places. Slowik called many blitzes, especially in the first half, and the passer faced heat from both sides and up the middle with linebackers and defensive backs assisting in the pass rush.
Although they didn't always reach the quarterback, Delhomme was hurried often and many of his early throws were off target. Packers' GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman liked what he saw from his new-look defenders.
"You have a philosophy and you practice certain things," Sherman said following the win. "You tell the guys, 'This is what we're going to do,' and you stick with it. I thought Bob did a great job of blending the blitz in with the coverages."
Middle linebacker Nick Barnett led the charge for the defense on the night, tallying one of the team's two sacks and killing a third quarter Carolina drive when he intercepted a Delhomme pass that cornerback Al Harris batted off the hands of receiver Steve Smith.
The interception came just minutes after the opportunistic defense had caused their first turnover of the season.
Less than a minute into the second half, linebacker Na'il Diggs was in the backfield to put a hit on Panthers fullback Brad Hoover as he struggled to corral a handoff from Delhomme. The ball came free and defensive end Aaron Kampman was there to pounce on the pigskin to give the Packers great field position, which they converted into an Ahman Green touchdown and a 10-point lead.
Sherman had been hoping that his defense, which ranked 10th in the league in creating turnovers in 2003, would be able to cause some more early in 2004 as well.
"I can't say enough about (the defense)," said the coach. "We went into this ball game thinking that if we didn't turn the ball over, we'd have a good chance to win. If we get some back, we'd have a great chance to win."
The night was not all about pressure for the defense, though, as they proved to be a stellar run stopper, too. They held the Panthers' offense, which ranked seventh in the league in rushing a season ago, to just 38 yards on the ground and a 2.9-yard average per carry.
Their performance of holding Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster in check is all the more impressive, when you consider the "D" played most of the game without starting nose tackle and designated run-stuffer Grady Jackson. The massive Jackson went down with a knee injury early in the first quarter and did not return.
Three members of the eight-man rotation on the defensive front made their regular season NFL debuts Monday, and Sherman was pleased by the play of the youngsters.
"James Lee rose to the challenge," Sherman said. "You lose Grady Jackson early in the game, and he's not only a run-stopper in the middle, but he's also an emotional lift out there. That was a little bit of a shocker and I think the guys responded well to that adversity. Corey Williams did a nice job as well. They did what they're supposed to do; they did what they're paid to do."
If this defense can continue to "do what they're paid to do", Slowik and his men should have opposing offenses in for some long nights of preparation before they play the Packers this season.