Having intercepted only one pass this season, the Packers rank last in the NFL with a -8 takeaway-giveaway ratio. But if this week's practices are any indication, the Packers may improve significantly in that department.
"This week has been pretty good as far as turnovers." Cornerback Jason Horton said. "We're all real focused on getting the ball out."
During Saturday's practice several players had interceptions, including safety Earl Little with two and safeties Mark Roman and Nick Collins each with one. On Friday Collins intercepted a pass in the end zone, which would have been a 100-plus-yard touchdown return. Each takeaway involved a defensive back making an impressive play.
"It wasn't like the quarterback just threw them up," Little said.
Little, who intercepted 17 passes while with the Cleveland Browns from 1999-2004, believes practice takeaways translate to games. In 2001 the Browns picked off three or four passes per practice and ended up leading the NFL in interceptions.
"When you're able to create turnovers in practice," Little said. "It gives guys that extra confidence, that extra boost that you can go out and do it in a game."
Last year the Packers picked off few passes during practice, and that carried over to games. They intercepted only eight passes during the entire season.
This week's practice could be the start of a different trend.
"This year I see our guys with better hands on the ball, making catches," head coach Mike Sherman said. "We're primed."
Packers right tackle Mark Tauscher faces a difficult task on Monday. He will block Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers on almost every play.
"He's faster than most guys I play against," Tauscher said. "He's more athletic than most guys I play against."
Peppers, a Pro Bowler and consensus All-Pro first team selection in 2004, racked up 11 sacks, four forced fumbles, two interceptions and two touchdowns last year.
Sherman said they will lend more blocking help to Tauscher's side if needed, but Tauscher likely will block Peppers one-on-one for the majority of the game
They used that tactic last year in a 24-14 victory against the Panthers. Peppers did not have any sacks but recorded eight tackles. In that game the Packers forced Peppers into a run stopping rather than pass rushing role. The Packer ran the ball 47 times for 152 yards.
"That's why we won the game," Tauscher said.
Peppers has not sacked the quarterback this year, but he has proven to be a force, posting 15 tackles, six quarterback hurries and one fumble recovery through three games.
"He's not played poorly," Panthers head coach John Fox said. "What happens way too much is in the media people judge a defensive lineman by how many sacks he has. That's about as far from the truth as you can be."
Tauscher declined to rank defensive ends but praised the longevity and consistency of New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan. Peppers, however, is clearly one of the better ones, and Tauscher relishes the chance to compete against the best.
"You've got to be up to the challenge," Tauscher said. "If not, why are you playing?"
Turning On A Dime
Because rookie cornerback Mike Hawkins' groin injury will prevent him from playing on Monday, Horton, a second-year-player, likely will play as the dime or fourth cornerback.
"If my name is called, I want to be ready," Horton said.
Horton played the dime cornerback position instead of Hawkins in Week One because of his superior special teams abilities. Hawkins, however, replaced him there in Week Two. In Week Three, the Packers activated both Horton and Hawkins because cornerback Joey Thomas (concussion) did not play.
"I'm not going to say it hasn't been hard on me," Horton said. "Not everyone can be a starter."
The fact that Horton will play at all is a testament to his ability to resiliency. Lymph node surgery in March to treat sarcoidosis, the same lung infection that afflicted the late Reggie White, caused him to miss the Packers' post-draft mini-camp and organized team activities. He then injured his shoulder on the first day of training camp and did not resume practicing until Aug. 8.
Except for the typical aches and pains that come with the playing football, Horton reported to be in good health.
"The only health condition I have is just like everyone else," he said. "Everybody's got nicks and knacks."
Quick Hits: The Packers will continue to rotate their defensive lineman during Monday's game as they have done all season. "We have more guys playing," Sherman said. "We're fresher. I think they can get off blocks and react quicker." ... Tight end Bubba Franks, who never missed an NFL game before sitting out last Sunday's game with a knee bruise, practiced on Saturday. The Packers, however, still list him as questionable for Monday's game. "To see him out there run, catch some balls, do the things a tight end does," Sherman said. "That part is encouraging."