GREEN BAY—The Packers pass defense is on a streak that needs to stop.
The question is whether safety Morgan Burnett is the guy who can help stop it on Sunday against the Lions.
In the Packers' first three games of 2013, the opposing quarterback has posted a passer rating above 100. That's the first time that has happened in three straight games since Dom Capers took over Green Bay's defense in 2009.
Furthermore, the Packers under Capers have never allowed more than four 100-plus passer ratings in a regular season, a track record that will be tough to maintain given this year's start. The closest the defense has come previously to allowing three in a row was three in a stretch of four games to end 2011, including the NFC divisional playoff loss to the Giants.
Opponent passer rating is a statistic Capers pays close attention to, and he's not one to make excuses, but it's clear the Packers have missed two of their top five defensive backs through the first three games. Not having Burnett and slot cornerback Casey Hayward against Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton hasn't helped the cause.
In all fairness, it should be pointed out that in Week 2 Washington's RGIII had a passer rating of just 51.0 midway through the third quarter when the Packers led 31-0. He filled the stat sheet the rest of the way to finish at 104.2.
But back to the health of the secondary. Hayward is still not available this week, but Burnett is, and none too soon, with star Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson coming to Lambeau Field. It wouldn't be fair to portray Burnett's return as a cure-all, but any defensive teammate will vouch for the difference he could make.
"Big boost for our defense," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Obviously, we've missed him."
Added fellow corner Sam Shields: "Morgan is a guy like A-Rod on offense. He knows everything. He knows where everybody is supposed to be. We just have to keep talking. That's our main thing in communication out there."
The calling card of the pass defense under Capers has been interceptions. Snagging a league-best 31 of them – essentially two per game – is how the Packers managed to allow the most passing yards in the league in 2011, yet, still hold 12 of 16 regular-season QBs under a 100 rating.
Through three games in 2013, the Packers have just two interceptions, perhaps the strongest evidence the unit misses Hayward, who led the team as a rookie last season with six picks. The defense also sorely missed linebacker Clay Matthews in Cincinnati, where Dalton's rating went from 39.2 in the first half to 152.9 in the second half, when Matthews was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Matthews is expected to play this week.
One of the defense's two interceptions this year is by Shields, who has been the team's best defensive back thus far. He drew the assignment of A.J. Green in Cincinnati, with safety help over the top at times. Shields held Green to just four receptions for 46 yards, though one of those catches was a 20-yard TD in one-on-one coverage that started the Bengals' second-half comeback.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week that Shields "has made a big step in his game," and all indications are he'll be asked to match up with Johnson, who has enjoyed some monster games against the Packers in the past.
As with his approach against Green, Shields is focusing on simply limiting the damage.
"After the catch, he can get off a tackle and he can score," Shields said. "When he catches the ball, we have to tackle him, because he's going to catch balls. It's not letting him get the deep balls, the big plays."
In the past, Capers' defenses have enjoyed productive stretches of holding opposing passers under a 100 rating. In each of the last four seasons, there has been a streak of at least six such games in a row, none bigger than the six consecutive wins that led to the Super Bowl XLV title, when the highest opposing passer rating was 79.9 (Philadelphia's Michael Vick in the wild-card game).
Even in 2011, when that record number of passing yards was surrendered, the defense held the opposing passer under a 100 rating for 10 straight games (Weeks 2-12) thanks to all those interceptions.
This past week, the only streak to attract attention has been Detroit's 22 consecutive road losses to the Packers, with the Lions' last win on Wisconsin soil coming in 1991. McCarthy dismissed its relevance.
"I don't even acknowledge the streak," he said. "I understand how long it's been, but it ain't gonna help us Sunday. The last two decades is the last two decades."
But the Packers' track record under Capers is the here and now, and with a 1-2 record heading into Green Bay's first NFC North game of the season, ending the opposing QB's current streak and starting one the other direction could matter more than ever.
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