1 Green Bay Packers Another division crown is in the offing, but the defense must show it's championship caliber

August 31, 2003

It was almost midnight last Jan. 5 when the effects of an
emotionally wrenching month began to seem too much for Packers
defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. The night before, the Packers
had lost a wild-card playoff game to the Falcons at Lambeau
Field, the first postseason home defeat in the franchise's
84-year history. The loss came on the heels of the death of his
mother, Bola, who was killed in a one-car accident in Los Angeles
on Dec. 1--the same day his wife, Eileen, had given birth to the
couple's first child, Abdul-Rashid--and Gbaja-Biamila became
distraught.

He got into his car and began tearing down the streets of Green
Bay, running red light after red light. "I thought nothing
mattered anymore," he says. "I know it was ridiculous, but I'd
lost control." Green Bay being what it is, he soon ran out of
intersections, and he returned home. There, he sat in his garage
and cried.

Many nights with the Bible have since helped the devoutly
Christian Gbaja-Biamila (pronounced BAH-jah BEE-ah-MIL-lah) right
his ship. That's crucial because he's a key figure in fixing the
weakness that haunted last year's Packers, who were not as strong
as their 12-4 record might indicate. Green Bay buried its NFC
North rivals by Halloween, but as the wins piled up, so did the
injuries along the defensive line. The starting front four lost
23 games to injury; only twice did its best quartet suit up for
the same game.

Though Green Bay's defense forced the most turnovers in the
league, its attacking style, when executed by a patchwork line,
too often resulted in uncovered gaps and blown assignments. As a
result the Packers allowed 4.84 yards a carry (only the Seahawks
were worse) and 124.9 rushing yards per game, their highest total
since 1990. "Even after a win, as a D-line it felt like a loss,"
says defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt. "We just wore down."

Meanwhile the stunning 27-7 loss to the Falcons was just the
final blow to Cheesehead Nation, which earlier had been shaken by
quarterback Brett Favre's intimations that his retirement is
nigh. Though he returns this season (looking as spry as ever),
the time for a last push in the Favre era is now. To do that the
team will count on a retooled, reinvigorated defensive front led
by Gbaja-Biamila--fitting for a man whose name in his parents'
native Nigeria means "Big Man Come and Save Me." "Other teams
don't want to see him on the field," says Packers defensive
coordinator Ed Donatell. "With mobile QBs and constant
substitution, you need a dominant, hybrid linebacker like
Kabeer."

There's no question that Gbaja-Biamila, in his fourth year out of
San Diego State, can be a disruptive force. Playing almost
exclusively on passing downs in 2001, he had 13 1/2 sacks;
pressed into full-time duty last season, he again led the team,
with 12. He struggled with his presnap adjustments, though, and
at 255 pounds he labored to shed blocks. "I was undisciplined,"
says Gbaja-Biamila, who has a new seven-year, $37.3 million deal.
"Now I'm ready. Playing the run isn't just a skill, it's an
attitude."

With Gbaja-Biamila entrenched at right end, Joe Johnson, last
year's big free-agent acquisition who suffered a season-ending
tear to his left triceps in Week 5, will replace the departed
Vonnie Holliday at left end. Joining Hunt at tackle will be the
ageless Gilbert Brown, returning for his 10th year. Rookie Nick
Barnett, a first-round draft pick out of Oregon State, is being
penciled in at middle linebacker, while All-Pro safety Darren
Sharper leads the secondary. "We wanted to get faster on defense,
and we did," coach Mike Sherman says. "We've won 24 games in the
last two years. We'll be fine."

As for the other big question mark in Green Bay, Sherman made a
trip to Hattiesburg, Miss., in March to visit Favre. Recalling
the conversation during the early days of training camp, Sherman
said the two talked "about everything." So Favre isn't retiring
anytime soon? "Everything," repeated Sherman, who leaned hard
into his chair with a smile that suggested it wouldn't be too
soon. --Josh Elliott

COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN FREDRICKSON/REUTERS SACK MAN Gbaja-Biamila still must prove that he can stop the run, but he already knows how to flatten quarterbacks. COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS DRIVER COLOR PHOTO

UNDER THE GUN

It was a gruesome sight: Left tackle CHAD CLIFTON was leveled
on a block by Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp during an
interception return last Nov. 24, then lay motionless with a
severely sprained pelvis. No team relies more on a single player
than the Pack does on Brett Favre; to help keep him upright,
Clifton must play like a Pro Bowler.

ENEMY LINES
An opposing scout's view

"I like what Mike Sherman is building. In Mark Hatley he's got a
personnel guy he trusts, and his coaching and organizational
skills have been great. Then again, a high school team could've
gone 12-4 in the NFC North last year.... If Brett Favre goes
down, they're screwed. He's as good as they come, except in the
playoffs. Then he seems to get a little erratic, like he's
pressing. But he's the class of the league.... Donald Driver
shocked the hell out of me last year. He's always had the skill,
but he got a lot better in traffic.... Mike Flanagan making the
move from center to tackle was as impressive as any performance
in the league last season. But the line is still a big question
mark. How healthy are those two tackles [Mark Tauscher and Chad
Clifton]?... Maybe they overpaid Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, but he's
gotten better every year and will again. He's like a young Jason
Taylor.... The linebackers will be O.K., as will the secondary.
But [safety] Marques Anderson fell off after a hot start last
year. He made too many mental errors.... They're still the class
of the division. No one will challenge them. Until the playoffs,
that is."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 7 MINNESOTA
14 DETROIT
21 at Arizona
29 at Chicago (Mon.)
Oct. 5 SEATTLE
12 KANSAS CITY
19 at St. Louis
26 Open Date
Nov. 2 at Minnesota
10 PHILADELPHIA (Mon.)
16 at Tampa Bay
23 SAN FRANCISCO
27 at Detroit (Thurs.)
Dec. 7 CHICAGO
14 at San Diego
22 at Oakland (Mon.)
28 DENVER

SCHEDULE STRENGTH
NFL rank: 30
Opponents' 2002 winning percentage: .449
Games against playoff teams: 4

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2002 statistics

2002 RECORD: 12-4
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 12/10/12
DEFENSE 21/3/12

COACH: Mike Sherman;
fourth season with Green Bay (33-15 in NFL)

AHMAN GREEN

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
RB 20 286 1,240 4.3

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
57 393 6.9 9

BRETT FAVRE

POS. PVR ATT. COMP. %
QB 18 551 341 61.9

YARDS TDs INT. RATING
3,658 27 16 85.6

WILLIAM HENDERSON

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
FB 185 7 27 3.9

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
26 168 6.5 4

DONALD DRIVER

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 51 70 1,064 9

BUBBA FRANKS

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
TE 109 54 442 7

CHAD CLIFTON

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LT 6'5" 330 lbs. 10 9

MIKE WAHLE

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LG 6'6" 307 lbs. 16 16

MIKE FLANAGAN

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
C 6'5" 297 lbs. 16 13

MARCO RIVERA

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RG 6'4" 310 lbs. 16 16

MARK TAUSCHER

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RT 6'4" 320 lbs. 2 2

ROBERT FERGUSON

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 152 22 293 3

DEFENSE

RE KABEER GBAJA-BIAMILA 46 tackles 12 sacks
RT CLETIDUS HUNT 36 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
LT GILBERT BROWN 27 tackles 0 sacks
LE JOE JOHNSON 10 tackles 2 sacks
OLB HANNIBAL NAVIES[1] 32 tackles 0 sacks
MLB NICK BARNETT (R)[1] 121 tackles 6 sacks
OLB NA'IL DIGGS 84 tackles 3 sacks
CB AL HARRIS[1] 24 tackles 1 int.
SS ANTUAN EDWARDS 39 tackles 0 int.
FS DARREN SHARPER 68 tackles 7 int.
CB MIKE MCKENZIE 66 tackles 2 int.

SPECIAL TEAMS PVR

K RYAN LONGWELL 169 44/44 XPS 28/34 FGs 128 PTS
PR ANTONIO CHATMAN *(R)[1] 399 22 RET. 7.8 AVG. 0 TDS
KR ANTONIO CHATMAN *(R)[1] 399 24 RET. 19.8 AVG. 0 TDS
P JOSH BIDWELL 79 PUNTS 41.7 AVG.

[1]New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 89)
*2000 stats

"Maybe they overpaid Gbaja-Biamila, but he's gotten better every
year and will again."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)