A painful win for the Packers

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Packers cornerback Al Harris' potential season-ending injury could throw the defense out of whack.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Al Harris pulled on a brown leather coat, turned around from his locker and for a moment I thought I was looking at the wrong guy. There were no crutches to be seen. No medical officials were hovering. Harris looked like any other Packers player departing Lambeau Field.

Then he took a step, and that was it. Harris could not put any weight on his left knee, and it appears a virtual certainty he will miss the rest of the season. The same could be true for linebacker Aaron Kampman, who like Harris, rode a cart off the field in the second half of the Packers’ 30-24 victory over San Francisco. Multiple reports suggested both players tore their anterior cruciate ligaments, but coach Mike McCarthy said only that the injuries "did not look very good."

Regardless, the Packers almost certainly will be left to pursue a wild-card playoff berth without two of their most prominent players.

“Those are two staples of our defense,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “They are great guys and teammates. I don’t know the extent of either one of their injuries right now. But not to have those guys is going to be tough going for this team.”

Through all of their trials in pass protection and scheme adjustment, the Packers have strung together consecutive victories to put themselves in position for a playoff spot. At 6-4, they’re part of a second tier of NFC teams behind the division leaders. That group includes the New York Giants (6-4) and possibly Philadelphia (5-4) should the Eagles win Sunday night at Chicago.

Otherwise, the Packers have gained an advantage over Atlanta (5-5), Chicago (5-5 at best), San Francisco (4-6) and Carolina (4-6) with six games to play. I believe they’ve tweaked their offense sufficiently enough to mitigate some problems in pass protection, having rediscovered their running game while targeting checkdown receivers more frequently. (Sunday, tailback Ryan Grant rushed for 129 yards while backup Brandon Jackson and tight end Jermichael Finley combined for 13 receptions.)

But even with Harris and Kampman on the field, the Packers were just starting to turn the corner on defense. To me, the biggest question of their playoff run isn’t whether they can protect Rodgers. It’s whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers can piece together a game plan to match their looming personnel turnover.

Their new mix is likely to include Tramon Williams in Harris’ spot along with rookie Brandon Underwood in the nickel. Rookie Brad Jones and veteran Brady Poppinga would replace Kampman.

“It’s like that in the NFL,” Capers said. “A week ago, when we didn’t have Aaron, Brad went in and did a nice job and we played well. Their job is to get ready and our job is to see how much we think they can handle and what they can do to find a way to play and win the game.”

I think most of us can agree the Packers strung together their best six quarters of defense last week against Dallas and in the first half Sunday against the 49ers. Here’s what the Cowboys and 49ers managed over that stretch:

Points: 10

Yards: 335

First Downs: 18

Now look at what happened from the moment Harris joined Kampman in the locker room at the 10:52 mark in the fourth quarter. See what the 49ers amassed in 10 offensive plays to close out the game:

Points: 14

Yards: 92

First downs: 5

The Packers suddenly couldn’t stop a team they had limited to one first down in the first half. Frankly, the Packers locked down the victory mostly because their offense ran the final 5:50 off the clock.

Capers noted that the 49ers began their comeback before Harris was injured, but I don’t think you can underestimate the domino effect of his departure. I’m well aware that rookie Michael Crabtree beat him for a 38-yard touchdown in the third quarter, but to that point Harris had blanketed him.

Woodson, for one, said Harris had made substantial progress in accepting the scheme recently.

“The last two weeks,” Woodson said, “the way he has studied, knowing what he’s going to get out there on the field, has drastically improved.”

Williams has a nose for the ball and is a decent playmaker, but I’m far from sold on his coverage skills. Crabtree, not noted for his speed, ran right past him on a 35-yard pass that set up the 49ers’ final touchdown.

“The second half, it wasn’t real good,” Williams said. “It’s a win, but deep down inside, we know it wasn’t a winning performance against a good team.”

In the worst-case scenario, in fact, the Packers will have two late-round draft picks in prominent roles for the rest of the season. Underwood (Round 6b) is the likeliest candidate for nickel, and Jones (Round 7) will certainly see significant time in Kampman’s place.

Like Harris, it seemed as though Kampman was beginning to find a comfort zone in the Packers' defense over the past few weeks. After sitting out the Cowboys game because of a concussion, Kampman sacked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith in the first quarter and unofficially finished with a team-high four solo tackles.

If he is lost for the season, you have to wonder if Kampman has played his final game in a Packers uniform. His contract expires after this season, and while it’s clear he can be part of a successful 3-4 defense, it’s equally clear his skills are not maximized in it.

But Sunday’s sack came from a nickel-like package in which Kampman rushed from a down-lineman’s position. Kampman’s productivity has increased since Capers began giving him more opportunities to rush as a defensive end.

“I’m not sure how he felt about the defense this season and switching schemes,” Woodson said. “But I know one thing: Nobody worked harder at it trying to be a productive member of this team. I know he was excited, especially how we did last weekend [and with us] doing some good things today. To see a guy [seriously injured] that you know works hard at the game and loves the game, both him and Al, is a tough thing.”

And not just for Woodson. Overcoming these injuries, while maintaining their recent standard of defensive play, will be the key to the Packers’ season.