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COMMENTARY

Defensive Line the Key to Packers' Super Drive

November 07, 1998|DAN POMPEI | THE SPORTING NEWS

The passes from the quarterback are as unpredictable as the movements of a fly. The running game is now you see it, now you don't. But the Green Bay Packers are a viable Super Bowl contender again in part because they can do to your quarterback what a hammer does to a nail.

They did it to Steve Young Sunday at Lambeau Field, sacking him nine times. That's more times than he ever has been sacked in his previous 158 NFL games. Young was beaten so thoroughly he now has an idea of what it feels like to be an egg yolk in a blender. This, from a defensive front that had pretty much been blamed for losing the Super Bowl.

"I don't think I've ever been around a nine-sack game," gushed Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, a 43-year coaching veteran. "It was a magnificent display of plain old up-the-field effort. So much for being washed up and all that crap we've heard since the Super Bowl. There was no question about the amount of energy they had left at the end of the game."

The Packers defensive line that appeared (a) washed up, (b) inexperienced and (c) ineffective actually is (d) none of the above. It's one of the best in football. But even Shurmur conceded he had some concerns before the start of the season. So how did this happen?

Reggie White is rejuvenated.

With his back problems behind him, White, 36, is playing like a much younger man. His three sacks Sunday gave him 11 for the season and put him on pace for 22. That would be the most he has ever had. His previous best was 21 sacks, when he was but a pup of 25.

White isn't taking as many downs off as he did last year, literally or figuratively. He's playing about 75 percent of the time, and most of his time on the field is quality time.

He still has the strength to use his famous hump move to send the 289 pounds of 49ers offensive tackle Derrick Deese rocketing into the air John Glenn-style. And he still has the finesse to close the play. White remains one of the NFL's truly remarkable athletes, and it's a shame he is committed to retiring at the end of the season. He can, even at his age, still claim a big game as his own.

Vonnie Holliday has been relentless in his improvement.

The rookie from North Carolina would have been drafted a lot higher than 19th in the first round if every team knew he was this good. Even the Packers didn't count on Holliday playing to this level this soon.

He has become the workhorse of the line. Holliday immediately upgraded the Packers' run defense, and he slowly has made his presence felt on the pass rush. At this point Holliday is the leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year.

"The pass rush is the thing he has worked very hard on and he's getting better at it as you can see," Shurmur said. "The thing that has made him play to such a high level is that he is so mature in that he wants to learn. Some vet will get a hold of him if he does something wrong, and then he'll never make the same mistake again."

The Packers figured out what to do with Keith McKenzie and Gilbert Brown.

They had hoped McKenzie would be an every-down player. But he was no more an every-down player last season than a trickle is a stream. McKenzie went along with the program by bulking up to 265 in the offseason, but then he learned he was a better player minus 10 pounds. Now he plays exclusively on passing downs.

"At 265, I lost a step or two of quickness," McKenzie said. "Now I feel a lot faster and quicker. I'm not as fatigued as much."

It has paid off with six sacks. On the largest defensive line in the NFL, McKenzie is a change of pace. He is an edge rusher with speed who is an ideal complement to the power rushing Holliday, whose spot he takes on passing downs.

Holliday, meanwhile, moves inside to tackle on passing downs, taking the spot of Brown. Instead of trying to get three downs out of Brown, Packers coaches are happy with one or two. It's a decision that helps the run defense and the pass rush, and has kept Brown from getting beat up and/or worn down.

It's interesting that the Packers are getting so much production out of players who are at divergent points in their careers. They have White on his retirement tour, the wide-eyed Holliday, journeyman Vaughn Booker (who has given respite to White since his offseason acquisition in a trade with the Chiefs), the emerging McKenzie and a man on top of his game in Santana Dotson.

Dotson says he doesn't get thrown off by the possibility of becoming a free agent at season's end. Nor does he get caught up in ongoing negotiations with the Packers. "I want to be here, and they want me here," Dotson said. "Hopefully, it won't be much longer."

It shouldn't be if Dotson continues to play as well as he did against the 49ers.

The Packers were helped on Sunday by a hodgepodge collection of 49ers blockers. The 49ers were handicapped by the tag-team left tackle combo of Kirk Scrafford and Jamie Brown, and by a knee bruise that knocked center Chris Dalman out of the game in the second half.

But that shouldn't detract from how well the Packers played. They were getting pressure without blitzing much, which enabled the Packers to commit an extra man to coverage. McKenzie said coach Mike Holmgren told the pass rushers to not worry about containing Steve Young's scrambles--"just go get him."

And that is exactly what the Packers did in a statement game.

"A lot of people in other cities were waiting for us to go away," Dotson said. "This game showed we're not going away."

With that defensive line, the defending NFC champions aren't budging.

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