Darren Sproles, Sam Shields

New Orleans Saints' Darren Sproles(43) dives for a touchdown against Green Bay Packers' Sam Shields in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012 in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Jeffrey Phelps

GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers' offense that dominated the NFL last season finally showed up Sunday against New Orleans.

Unfortunately, so did the defense that couldn't stop anyone.

After putting together back-to-back performances that seemed to confirm a resurgence by a defense that had finished 32nd and last in the NFL in yards and points allowed in 2011, the Packers rekindled some painful memories with their showing against the Saints. Mostly, they left people wondering if those strong earlier efforts against Chicago and Seattle were just a mirage.

Granted, Green Bay's defensive meltdown came against quarterback Drew Brees and a high-tech Saints offense that scored only 13 fewer points than the Packers did last season. Still, it was hard to keep that in perspective after the Packers' defense again looked dazed and confused in the 28-27 victory over New Orleans.

"If you want to be a top defense," Packers safety Morgan Burnett said, "you've got to force turnovers, eliminate the big play and try to get off the field on third down."

In that case, the Packers were 0-for-3 against the Saints, who committed no turnovers, rolled up 429 passing yards and converted 53 percent of their third-down plays. But did that signal a return to the bad old days of 2011 for the Packers or was it just a bad day for the new-look defense of coordinator Dom Capers?

Most likely, it's the latter. The Packers' defense is already statistically better than last year's group, ranking ninth in yards and points allowed so far, but there is an even more significant difference between this defense and the 2011 model. It's called hope. The defense has much more youth than it did last season and, because of that, has a legitimate expectation for improvement as the season goes on.

One of Packers coach Mike McCarthy's rituals is to perform a comprehensive review and give his team grades every four games. On Wednesday, McCarthy said the special teams were the most consistent and productive unit during the Packers' 2-2 start, the offense didn't get going until the Saints game and the defense has been all over the map.

"Defensively, we've been a little bit of a roller coaster," he said.

That's already an improvement over last season, when defensively it was more like falling off a cliff. But the Packers will need their defense to continue to improve, starting Sunday when they face rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts in Indianapolis. The good news? At least the possibility for improvement exists this season.

With linebacker D.J. Smith and cornerback Sam Shields in their first season as starters and six rookies — ends Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, linebackers Nick Perry and Dezmon Moses, safety Jerron McMillian and cornerback Casey Hayward — playing sizable roles, the defense figured to experience growing pains. That didn't truly show up until the masterful Brees dominated the unit Sunday.

But unlike last year, when there was little depth on defense and some of the players the Packers were forced to use had no real upside, the young guys can be counted on to get better. Whatever shortcomings they may have today will have a chance to disappear as they gain more experience because every one of them already has shown the ability to make plays.

"I think over the last four games each rookie has had their moment in the sun," Worthy said. "We're just trying to continue to work. We just want to fit in with these guys. We knew we have a bunch of playmakers on defense and we want to make our presence heard. We're going to keep working at it in practice, coach Capers is going to keep giving us confidence and as he gives us more confidence we're going to make a lot more plays."

Actually, the young players have already made an impact. The defense is faster and plays with more energy this season, in part because of the influx of youth. The Packers have been solid against the run and their pass rush is improved. Until Capers burdened them with an overly complex game plan against the Saints, they had been very good on third down, too.

What the Packers haven't done is create turnovers. They intercepted four passes against Chicago but those are their only takeaways of the season, a shocking statistic for a Capers defense. The Packers have been among the league leaders in takeaways in each of his three previous seasons and it may just be one of those inexplicable slumps that will end as quickly as it began.

"We've still got a lot of work to do; we're not settled," Burnett said. "I know there's a lot of plays that we gave up last week, but we'll just learn from it on film. We're just looking to keep improving."

Unlike last year, someone on the Packers' defense could say that with a straight face.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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