32 to 1: Packers hope their defense returns to its top form

Packers general manager Ted Thompson didn’t have to say anything publicly about the disappointing play of his defense in 2013.

His offseason actions spoke loudly enough.

Improving a unit that ranked 24th in the NFL last season in three major categories — total yards allowed, run defense and scoring defense — was clearly Thompson’s focus.

The first bold maneuver came when cornerback Sam Shields was re-signed to a whopping four-year, $39 million contract in early March. Thompson then reached into the free-agent market — a tactic he despises — to sign defensive end/outside linebacker Julius Peppers to a three-year, $26 million contract. The move was especially surprising considering Peppers’ age (34) and the very real possibility he may be a quickly descending player after a mediocre 2013 season in Chicago.

Along the way, Green Bay re-signed nose tackle B.J. Raji and end/outside linebacker Mike Neal and added free-agent defensive tackle Letroy Guion (Minnesota). The Packers also used their first-round draft pick on a defensive player for the third straight year with University of Alabama free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix getting chosen 21st overall.

There are two other reasons Green Bay should expect an improved defense:

*A return to health by three starters — outside linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb), cornerback Casey Hayward (hamstring) and inside linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring) — who missed significant snaps because of injuries.

*The continuing development of the Packers’ two previous first-round picks in defensive end Datone Jones and outside linebacker Nick Perry.

Even a modest improvement defensively should keep the Packers atop the NFC North, thanks to an Aaron Rodgers-led offense that shows no signs of regression. Running back Eddie Lacy appears set to build upon a 1,178-yard, 11-touchdown debut season that earned him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. A quality offensive line will be bolstered by the return of right tackle Bryan Bulaga from a fractured hip. And the receiving corps has enough young talent to weather the free-agent loss of James Jones (Oakland).

Coach Mike McCarthy told Packers media at the start of last month’s minicamp that his team is "right where we need to be right now." That has McCarthy bullish Green Bay can be peaking when it matters most — in January — after failing to advance past the second round of the playoffs since the 2010 Packers won Super Bowl XLV.