Slowik's Leadership Will Help Defense

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So it's been a month now since GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman announced that Ed Donatell wouldn't be the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator in 2004.

Maybe some of you saw that coming. To others of you, it came as a surprise. But I get the feeling that some Packers fans might be more surprised by Sherman's second decision than the first one: staying in-house to promote defensive coordinator Bob Slowik rather than bringing in a "fresh" face.

Well, take it from a guy who played under Slowik for two seasons, there's no reason to worry. In fact, this is a great, great move, because of all the coaches I have ever played for at any level, Slowik is the most informative.

By that I don't just mean that he's a good instructor. A lot of coaches can tell players how to do something, but good coaches make sure that players understand why they're doing something. And more than anyone else, Slowik made me a smarter player.

Now that he's been promoted to defensive coordinator, he's going to make the Packers a smarter defense. And why is that important?

Well, take that fourth-and-26 play in the playoffs against the Philadelphia Eagles last month that's probably still fresh in your mind. The Packers gave up that reception to Freddie Mitchell not because of breakdowns by any one player, but because a handful of guys were just out of position or made slightly the wrong decision on what to do.

Now, had the Packers fully understood their roles on that play, they win the game, because there's no way that Mitchell slips free past the first-down marker. Instead what happened was the Packers defenders were simply playing spots rather than the situation.

That was a play that should have been won long before the players stepped on the field. Fourth-and-26 situations are won in mini-camps and training camps and classroom sessions during the season.

And that's where Slowik excels because he's a terrific communicator.

I remember when he came to Green Bay in 2000, he impressed the defensive backs because he asked our opinions about things. A lot of coaches don't bother to do that.

Granted, the final decision will always be his, but it means a lot to players to be able to have some input.

After all, Darren Sharper didn't become a Pro Bowl player by being a dummy. He's one of the best safeties in football because he understands the game. Why shouldn't he be able to describe what he sees on the field?

And the thing of it is, once players are invited to contribute, they become more involved. Now they aren't just out there following commands, they are coaches on the field.

By tapping into that player knowledge, I think Slowik is going to be able to maximize the talent of the defense. I also I think he's going to do his best to make sure that the playmakers are in position to make plays.

So look for the interceptions to go up, for Sharper to return to the Pro Bowl and for Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to be more effective as a rusher.

Also expect that Slowik will be more aggressive and put opposing offenses on their heels more than the Packers have in the recent past. NFL offenses are constantly changing and you have to fight fire with fire.

But even though Slowik will help the Packers make changes in those areas, remember that the Green Bay defense hasn't exactly been the doormat of the league in recent seasons. This isn't a system that needs a complete overhaul.

Over the past few years the Packers have been one of the leaders in takeaways and they've been able to shut teams down in the red zone. By keeping things in-house, Slowik will be able to preserve all the parts of the defense that have been effective over recent years, while he looks to improve on areas of weakness.

I think you'll see the third-down defense get a lot better. I also think that the Packers will be tougher late in games than they were in 2003, when they gave up a lot of leads in the final minutes.

The Packers will also benefit from Kurt Schottenheimer being added as defensive backs coach in place of Slowik. I mean, how can you pass up an opportunity to bring this guy on staff?

Here's a coach who has been a coordinator the past few seasons and now he's going to be in position meetings working closely with the Packers' defensive backs. He's going to command the respect of veteran players like Sharper, Mike McKenzie and Al Harris just like Slowik had their respect as the DBs coach.

And Schottenheimer will probably have the biggest impact on younger players, considering that the Packers are likely to try and upgrade their depth in the secondary in this year's draft.

If you look at the 2003 season and see the effect Mark Duffner -- a former defensive coordinator -- had on Nick Barnett, turning him into one of the Packers' best defenders as a rookie, then you can appreciate the challenge that Schottenheimer could face in the secondary.

With Slowik taking command and guys like Schottenheimer and Duffner on staff, I have to believe that the Packers have one of the strongest defensive staffs in the league right now.

Of course player talent is a big part of success, too, but if you watched the Super Bowl you saw in the New England Patriots a well-coached, balanced and smart defense that was made up of players having fun.

By making players feel involved and by stepping up the aggressive edge, I think Slowik is going to put a similar stamp on the Packers defense.

Slowik might have been hired from within, but he'll have the defense looking fresh and new. And it's on the field where the Packers and their fans really want to see change.

*LeRoy Butler played 12 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, helping them to two Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade Honors for the 1990s, before retiring in July 2002.

Butler's autobiography, 'The LeRoy Butler Story ... From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap,' is available on his website, leroybutler36.com.*

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