The Green Bay Packers might have won the battle and lost the war against San Francisco.
One week after smothering the explosive Dallas Cowboys, the Packers’ defense mostly dominated the 49ers during Sunday’s 30-24 victory at Lambeau Field. Coordinator Dom Capers’ quickly improving unit suffered two potentially catastrophic injuries, however, in losing outside linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris to knee injuries.
Neither coach Mike McCarthy nor Capers knew the severity of the injuries, though McCarthy did nothing to sugarcoat the likelihood that both could be lost for the season.
“Both injuries did not look very good. There is some concern, but we will have all the information (on Monday),” McCarthy said, adding “hopefully” the injuries aren’t as serious “as we may think.”
The injuries came right when the defense was beginning to find its stride. After almost shutting out Dallas last week, the defense basically had put Sunday’s game away by halftime, when the 49ers had one first down, 57 total yards, minus-7 passing yards, 0-of-5 third downs and allowed three sacks.
“You don’t want to think about playing without either of the players,” defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. “If they’re dinged up a little bit and have to miss any time, it’s our responsibility as players to rally up and continue to play. It’s something you don’t want to think about but if it does happen, it’s something we’ve got to overcome.”
Kampman, who was shaken up in the second quarter, fell in a heap while rushing the passer in the third quarter. He was off to a strong start, eliminating quarterback Alex Smith’s run-pass option while playing coverage and then sacking Smith on the next play in the first quarter. He led the team with four tackles.
Harris was injured playing in deep coverage in the fourth quarter. Capers didn’t see what happened, and the injury happened out of the range of the TV cameras, since the ball was thrown short. Harris broke up two passes and allowed a touchdown when rookie receiver Michael Crabtree gave him a slight shove in the back on a 38-yard completion on third-and-20. Kampman was hurt on the previous play.
Asked where the defense turns without two veteran leaders, Capers said: “Well, you know, Brandon Underwood becomes more of a factor. You saw in our dime, we were playing six DBs, and after Al went out, Brandon went in. He’s got to be like the rest of these guys. Brad Jones had to step up last week, Brad Jones had to go back in and play today. Brandon, if Al’s not able to go, then Brandon will have to be able to step up if we want to continue to play dime.”
While both injuries would be difficult to overcome, losing Harris would be the most crippling to the defense. There’s at least depth at Kampman’s outside linebacker position, with veteran Brady Poppinga, rookie Brad Jones and second-year pro Jeremy Thompson -- or even reserve inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and Brandon Chillar. Capers could mix and match based on down and distance to perhaps get by. Way back during minicamp, Capers said he could see Bishop playing as a situational pass-rusher.
At cornerback, Tramon Williams is the obvious replacement for Harris. When Harris was out with an injured spleen last season, the Packers went 2-2 with Williams intercepting a pass in each of his first three starts.
The problem, however, is depth, since the backups all move a spot up in the pecking order. Jarrett Bush, who’s had some bright spots but also got toasted for the winning touchdown against Tampa Bay, moves up to the nickel corner and rookie sixth-round pick Brandon Underwood moves onto the field when the Packers go with four cornerbacks in their dime package.
When Harris was injured, the score was 30-10. Two plays later, it was 30-17. The 49ers made it 30-24 on the next drive, with Underwood being hit with a 15-yard face mask and the Niners completing passes of 20 and 35 yards. The 35-yarder was a long pass to Crabtree against Williams.
What Capers will have to wrestle with is how much losing Harris will impact the rest of his secondary, starting Thursday at Detroit. Some of Capers’ most effective blitzes have been with his cornerbacks. Charles Woodson comes frequently, but Harris is an effective blitzer and Williams had a hit on Smith. Can he afford to send, say, Woodson, when he’s so short on cover men?
“Guys have just got to step up,” Williams said when asked that question. “You’ve got to find what it is inside you and come out and play a great game and do what the coaches ask of you. I can remember when I first came up last year when Al went down, I said to myself that I’m not going to try to do anything special, just do what the coaches ask me and play the defense and let the game come to me. That’s what I did. That’s one thing I stress to the young guys. If they have to come in, just play the defense.”
There won’t be much time to find the answers, and they won’t get much sympathy from the perennially downtrodden Detroit Lions, who stunned the Cleveland Browns on the final play of the game 38-37. Matthew Stafford threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns as Detroit improved to 2-8.
With the exception of struggling Seattle, each of the remaining teams on the schedule has a prolific quarterback. After Detroit, the Packers face Baltimore (Joe Flacco), Chicago (Jay Cutler), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger), Seattle and Arizona (Kurt Warner).
“It did affect us a little bit,” safety Nick Collins said. “Guys were kind of sad about the situation. At the same time, this is the NFL. You’ve got to keep it moving. Guys were ready to step up, but not hearing their voices out there, it was tough, because they’re so vocal out there and they’re leaders and everybody feeds off their passion for the game.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.