Green Bay Packers 2010 Preview
A year ago, if you’d asked a typical Wisconsinite what their greatest fear was, after a shortage of beer and brats, they would have given you a scenario that went something like this: Brett Favre indeed unretires for a second time and joins the hated Vikings (or, as Packers legend Jerry Kramer called them, the “dastardly Vikings”). Favre goes on to have arguably the best year of his career, beating the Packers twice in the regular season and leading the Vikings deep into the playoffs.
Obviously, as it turned out, that’s exactly what happened. And, as it turned out, this fear – like most fears – was far worse in thought than in actuality. Favre is still a Viking heading into 2010, but nothing should seem scary to Wisconsinites. Their Packers are at too high a level to worry about other teams. Yes, the Vikings are a legit Super Bowl contender – but so are the Packers. In fact, it’s hard to see how Green Bay can lose if everyone plays to their potential.
Aaron Rodgers, to his endless credit, has become a superstar even under extreme pressure. The 26-year-old threw 30 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in ’09, posting a sterling passer rating of 103.2. Rodgers isn’t the only weapon offensively. Last season, the Packers had the first offense in NFL history to feature a 4,000-yard passer, 1,200-yard rusher (Ryan Grant) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Donald Driver, Greg Jennings). All are back, equally as strong in 2010. And, oh by the way, third-year pro Jermichael Finley is about to blossom into the best tight end in the game.
So often, the question with great offenses is whether they can post enough points week in and week out to compensate for a subpar defense. But this Packers team boasts an attacking, Byzantine 3-4 defense that ranked second in yards allowed last season. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson returns, as does two-time Pro Bowl free safety Nick Collins. And a pair of young players – nose tackle B.J. Raji and outside linebacker Clay Matthews – are poised for stardom, if not superstardom.
A big factor in Green Bay’s success last season was turnover differential. The offense had the fewest turnovers in football, while the defense forced the most. This speaks to an encouraging team-wide playmaking mentality, though history suggests turnover differential paints false pictures of hope when interpreted as a harbinger of success. (The perfect example: the Dolphins went 11-5 in leading the NFL with plus-17 turnovers in ’08, then fell to 7-9 when they were minus-8 turnovers in ’09; another example: the Bears reached the Super Bowl with an NFC-leading plus-13 turnover differential in ’06; in ’07, they had a minus-one turnover differential and missed the playoffs altogether. In short, turnover differential is a crucial statistic, but one that is hard to sustain from one year to the next.
But it’s unlikely the Packers will exhibit this kind of flakiness. After all, for the past two seasons, this has been the youngest team in the NFL. Now, as the 12th-youngest team in the NFL, this Packers club is just settling into its prime. And everyone – everyone – is back in 2010. Including the stable figures at the top: head coach Mike McCarthy, who has left his indelible stamp on the franchise; unfairly-maligned GM Ted Thompson, who has constructed one of the league’s deepest rosters despite having a modest payroll; and team president Mark Murphy, who is becoming a Bigger Whig in the NFL executive circles each day. Spotting such continuity in today’s NFL is as rare as spotting a white raccoon on the same day you got attacked by another white raccoon.
Of course, just because Wisconsinites should have unshakable confidence in their Packers, doesn’t mean they will. Football fans are programmed to worry. What makes the natural ups of the game thrilling are the dreadful downs. So what is there to worry about with this club? Read along – surely we’ll be able to find something. And, if we don’t, well, then Packers fans can worry about that.
For the first half of last season, the answer to what to worry about was easy: the offensive line. But the healthy returns of veteran tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher in November nullified that. Both are back in 2010. And now, there’s first-round rookie Bryan Bulaga around to ostensibly stabilize the left tackle spot when the 34-year-old Clifton retires. Thus, even fretting about the future is senseless.
Neither Clifton nor Tauscher dazzles individually these days, but their calming presence and dependable style of play (contrasted with the roller coaster of horror that youngsters T.J. Lang and especially Allen Barbre provide) soothes the wobbly interior line. A lot of blame for that interior wobble has been cast upon left guard Daryn Colledge. Indeed, the fifth-year pro operates with questionable leverage and technique at times, but most of his struggles have come when he’s having to play out of position or is next to other guys who are playing out of position. When his surroundings are stable, Colledge shows promise.
Still, because Colledge stayed away for the early part of the offseason – he was amongst the handful of restricted free agents who took their dear sweet time signing their tender – he must now fight off good friend and fellow fifth-year pro Jason Spitz for his starting job. (And possibly on the horizon is fifth-round rookie Marshal Newhouse.) Spitz, who is coming off November back surgery (a significant side note), was supposed to challenge for the starting center job, but wily veteran Scott Wells has simply been too good to supplant.
Bad as this Packers front five was early last season, it’s still fair to say that Aaron Rodgers must take fewer sacks. Rodgers has a tendency to hold onto the ball when his reads aren’t clearly defined (i.e. when he’s dissecting zone coverage). He is one of the best timing and rhythm passers in the game, in part because he has the toughness to endure big hits in the pocket.
Rodgers’s chemistry with Donald Driver and Greg Jennings is huge. Driver and Jennings are two of the best slant-running wideouts in the game. Both have dangerous speed when running after the catch, and both are savvy enough to make improvised plays downfield. Jordy Nelson and James Jones are two speedy, athletic slot options. Nelson is a little bigger (6’3”, 217 vs. Jones’s 6’1”, 208) and more reliable, so he’ll be first off the bench.
Nelson might be the No. 3 receiver, but he won’t be the third option in the passing game. That distinction goes to sensational 23-year-old tight end Jermichael Finley, who has replaced the athletically-decent yet inconsistent Donald Lee in the starting lineup. In fact, Finley could become the top option. Simply put, he is Antonio Gates with more size and athleticism. He has soft hands and uncanny body control. If he continues to mature, he’ll blossom into the NFL’s best tight end. The key will be whether there are enough balls available in this offense for Finley to post gaudy numbers.
At least 20 times a game, the ball will be in the hands of running back Ryan Grant. Statistically speaking, Grant is a fine runner (1,203 yards in ’08, 1,253 yards in ’09). But in reality, he is mechanical almost to the point of stiff. He does not have breakaway speed or acceleration; his numbers are a product of gaping holes and playing in an offense that scares opponents through the air.
Korey Hall and John Kuhn will continue to battle for the fullback duties. Hall is quicker, Kuhn is stronger. Problem for them is, last year’s fifth-round pick, Quinn Johnson, is quicker and stronger than both. If Johnson figures out what he’s doing, he’ll earn most of the snaps. Brandon Jackson is an erratic No. 2 runner but excellent pass-blocker and screen pass receiver. Still, he could be pushed for playing time by sixth-round rookie James Starks.
There is plenty of buzz about this Packers defense – and rightfully so. Dom Capers is one of the smartest, most creative coordinators in the game. And, as mentioned earlier, Capers has a litany of weapons at his disposal. But let’s not forget, this is the same unit that gave up 45 points to the Cardinals in the 51-45 Wild Card loss. In that game, Kurt Warner torched the NFL’s supposed fifth-best pass defense for 379 yards and five touchdowns.
To prevent a repeat disaster, Green Bay needs to get more from its No. 2 cornerback. Whether that’s veteran Al Harris or fill-in starter Tramon Williams remains to be seen. Harris is 35 and coming off late November ACL surgery. He is a classic press corner but is capable of meeting this scheme’s zone demands. Williams is a superb athlete but fundamentally flawed player. He’s prone to penalties and struggles with his coverage technique when facing quality opponents. If he can polish his mechanics, he’ll win the job outright because he’s shown hints of playmaking prowess. Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee will compete for No. 4 duties.
The No. 1 corner obviously isn’t an issue. Another season like his ’09 campaign and Charles Woodson (who turns 34 in October) could find himself Canton bound. Though his tremendous man-to-man skills have eroded only slightly (if at all), Woodson is not really a shutdown corner. His value in this scheme is as a playmaking Swiss Army Knife (so to speak). Capers uses Woodson in a myriad of ways, much like how Dick LeBeau uses Troy Polamalu.
Part of the reason Capers can be creative in the way he uses his superstar corner is because rangy free safety Nick Collins is a dependable last line of defense. Collins has improved each of his first five seasons, earning back-to-back Pro Bowl honors in ’08 and ’09 and a four-year, $26.5 million contract this past offseason. Strong safety Atari Bigby wanted a long-term contract but only received a restricted free agent tender. He protested by staying away from OTA’s, opening the door for playmaking third-round rookie Morgan Burnett to snatch his starting job.
The only other starting position up for grabs is the left outside linebacker slot, and it’s likely that last year’s seventh-round pick, Brad Jones, will lock that up before the preseason begins. Jones is a swift athlete who could blossom into a key cog if he gets better at shedding blocks. The man he must hold off for the job is Brady Poppinga, a quick but uninspiring sixth-year veteran who is eager to play the pass-rushing role that made him a star at BYU.
The most luminous pass-rusher on this team, of course, is second-year sensation Clay Matthews. The Pro Bowler from USC skims the edges with rare speed and balance. At this point, Matthews is more of a space player, but expect him to become more dominant all-around as his experience builds.
Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett are both closer to “average” than “good”. Hawk is ineffective in space but stout in congested areas. Barnett lacks awareness but has excellent closing quickness when he pins his ears back and attacks. Backup Brandon Chillar also sees playing time, primarily as a roving fifth linebacker in 3-5-3 zone run-stopping sets.
We saved the best for last: Green Bay’s front line. Ryan Pickett was phenomenal at nose tackle last season, but coaches have still decided to slide him to end in 2010. At this point, anything should be cool with Pickett – he signed a four-year, $24.95 million contract in March.
Pickett’s position change was ordered so that second-year stud B.J. Raji can get acquainted with the nose tackle slot that he’s expected to occupy for the next decade. Raji flashes startling explosiveness. He’ll regularly command double teams once he gets more comfortable with the pro game.
Rounding out the front three is end Cullen Jenkins, arguably Green Bay’s best defensive lineman. Jenkins’s lateral agility and proclivity for penetration are a big reason the Packers ranked No. 1 against the run last season. In 2010, with Johnny Jolly suspended indefinitely for drugs, Jenkins will share some of his reps with inexperienced backups Justin Harrell and Mike Neal. Harrell, the oft-injured ’07 first-round pick, reportedly had his best offseason. Neal, a second-round pick, was a defensive tackle at Purdue but is built to anchor in this scheme.
Kicker Mason Crosby hasn’t shown ideal consistency, though coaches were comfortable enough with him to not bring in a veteran competitor over the offseason. Undrafted free agents Tim Masthay (second year) and Chris Bryan (first year) will compete for the punting duties. Neither has ever kicked in even a preseason game. The winner will be whoever Mike McCarthy thinks least resembles last year’s punter, Jeremy Kapinos. Jordy Nelson is expected to handle punt and kick returns, though coaches would love to see Will Blackmon finally stay healthy (his latest injury is an October ’09 ACL).
Green Bay is rock solid on both sides of the ball, with stars in all the right places. If everyone stays healthy, this team is the Super Bowl favorite in the NFC.
Predicted: 1st NFC North
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