Now that the roster is set, I feel a bit more comfortable prognosticating on the Green Bay Packers upcoming season. A lot of folks have already had their says, of course. And a lot of the same things tend to get said over and over. In that sense, you’ll probably find no news per se here. So, in an effort to save both this writer and you, my dedicated reader, time, I’ll just give a quick take on each aspect of the Pack as I see it going into the opener at Philadephia…and beyond.
The ultimate key to the season lies here. No surprise. And that begins with QB Aaron Rodgers and his receivers. The fact that veteran tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are back to start the season bodes well. It will be even better if they can stay on the field for most of the season. Having five receivers, four tight ends, three fullbacks and two running backs offers head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin plenty of scheme scenarios to drive opposing team defenses nuts.
Figure that the ratio of passes to runs will probably be close to 60-40 and the ability to have these key players stay healthy throughout the season will determine to a large degree just how far the Pack can go. This is a dominating offense, at least in the passing game. To the extent that the running game can keep defenses honest by not blitzing every play, to that extent will there be an opportunity to win the tough games. Not that they all aren’t tough. Just, as the saying goes, some are tougher than others. And, looking at the schedule, many of those games come later in the season when weather conditions — particularly at Lambeau and other northerly outdoor venues — will dictate running the ball a bit more often. It will be interesting to see what happens when rookie RB James Starks becomes available off the PUP (physically unable to perform) list after week 6. That’s when the schedule starts to change, the weather starts to change, and running backs Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson will have already taken a pounding. He might just offer the kind of change of pace that provides the additional surprises needed to let Rodgers and company do what they do so well.
Other than special teams (more on that in a moment), for most Packers fans the biggest question mark lies on this side of the ball. Yesterday was actually the first time during all preseason that the 11 starters were on the practice field at the same time (Al Harris and Atari Bigby aside, of course). In addition, LB Clay Matthews has been moved to the left side, flip flopping with Brad Jones. Both, by the way, have also battled injuries in the preseason and have not seen any action for quite a while. This week will be dedicated to working on the communication between the players as a unit.
The big problem in the big games last year — i.e., against top-notch quarterbacks — was generating a pass rush. Didn’t happen much and as a result those great quarterbacks sliced and diced the Packers’ defense and handed the Pack losses despite the offense putting up lots of points. Like last year, the Pack’s offense will put up points; the question will be whether the defense can hold up their end of the bargain. Yes, stats showed the Packers’ defense did well last year. But some of those great stats which figured into the overall rankings were generated via some of the weaker teams on the schedule. Yes, it works that way for all teams, true. But…well…last year was last year and this year is…hmmm…we don’t know yet. Lots of talented players, but also some real question marks. And until we see how defensive coordinator Dom Capers is going to deploy his players and schemes, and how they perform when the games count, it is anyone’s guess. Do they have the potential to be a very good defense? Yes, definitely. But the proof will come once game day hits.
We know that Clay Matthews will have to once again have a stellar season. We know that A.J. Hawk needs to step up his play as he has yet to live up to the expectations of being a #5 overall draft pick in the minds of many. B.J. Raji will have to be as stout at the point of attack as was Ryan Pickett last year and Pickett will have to perform as highly at his new defensive end position as he did in the middle. Back up players will see lots of action, particularly on the line. Will Justin Harrell’s spot on the roster actually be of value to the team or a wasted spot which could have been used on someone else? Time will tell. The Packers — and even a few reporters — seem to be optimistic. After three years, that’s about all there is. Keep your fingers crossed he can at least be available — which was Harrell’s answer, by the way, as to how he made the final roster — most of the season. Anything the team gets out of him will be gravy.
The biggest concern on the defensive side of things, not surprisingly, is the defensive backfield. With both Al Harris and Atari Bigby out for at least the first six games, and Harris’ return at all questioned in some quarters, Tramon Williams and rookie Morgan Burnett get the starts at cornerback and safety, respectively. With Charles Woodson and Nick Collins holding down the other corner and safety spots, one would think all would be well. But you can bet that opposing QBs will test both Williams and Burnett heavily during at least the initial part of the season. Where things get a bit dicey, however, is when dime and nickel packages are required. Because of the injury to CB Brandon Underwood, the nickel slot looks to be held down by undrafted rookie Sam Shields. You can be sure he will be test early and often. The dime spot, at least until Underwood resumes his nickel duties, will be manned by Jarrett Bush who has typically been a lightening rod for fan frustration over the years. Bush performed well in the last preseason game. But when the game has been on the line in regular season play, it just seems that Bush has often been out of position and/or unable to make the play necessary. If you read fan comments about Bush being kept on the roster you can get a feel for the fact that until shown otherwise, Packer fans just don’t trust Bush to be able to play at the level needed. Obviously, GM Ted Thompson thinks otherwise and that’s the vote that matters.
This is the area of the Packers that has been the biggest problem under Mike McCarthy’s head coaching tenure. Despite changing special teams coaches, and supposedly devoting more attention to it, the level of performance has not seemed to change year to year. Until the regular season begins on Sunday against the Eagles, we can’t really have a clear picture of what to expect. A lot of the players playing on special teams are no longer even on the squad. So what it performs like when it actually is a consistent unit remains to be seen in terms of coverage and returns.
Punter Tim Masthay won the job over Chris Bryan, who was signed as a free agent by the Buccaneers after his release by the Packers. Masthay will also likely be handling kickoff duties, demonstrating a stronger leg in that department than kicker Mason Crosby. Masthay looks to be a definite improvement over…whomever it was we had last season (shock therapy helped block that particular name from resurfacing).
As to the return game, Packer fans again seem to be generally frustrated. GM Thompson did nothing in the draft or via trade or waiver claims to bolster that area of the team. As a result, coach McCarthy said during his news conference yesterday that CB Tramon Williams and WR Greg Jennings will be the current options at punt returner, and WR Jordy Nelson and RB Brandon Jackson will be returning kicks. Again, from both fan and reporter comments, the thought of exposing one of your top receivers — Jennings — to possible injury returning punts is something that leaves many aghast. If something were to happen to Williams, the depth issue in the secondary then starts to come into play, as it does if something were to happen to Jackson despite the fact that he is not a starter. It leaves many fans wondering — for another year — why it is that the Packers cannot somehow find or acquire a returner. Granted, they thought they had it in Will Blackmon, but ongoing injuries just made that impossible. There is a possibility that Blackmon could return to the team somewhere down the line following his release with an injury settlement. But still, it is an area which just does not seem to figure that largely into Packer plans. And yet, it is an area which could help determine how far the Packers go into the post-season.
A football team is like a three-legged stool: if all of them are there it works; if one of them isn’t there or is wobbly…well, you get the idea.
Applying this analogy to the Packers, the offense is strong, the defense is — we don’t know — and the special teams seem wobbly at best. How will that translate into the season?
Without going into predictions for individual games — we’ll do that on a week-by-week basis prior to game time — we finally need to give our prediction on wins and losses for the upcoming season.
From reviewing what others have to say, it seems as if most projections for the Pack have the team going anywhere from 10-6 to 13-3.
It should be apparent that, with the schedule stiffening in the latter part of the season, the team must make real headway in the first part. And the schedule sets up for them to do just that. Typically though, as with any team, they lose a game they should win and win a game they should lose. I’m not sure which will be which in the first 6 games, but I see that stretch resulting in a 5-1 win-loss record. In the next 10 games, I can see 4 possible losses, although again an expected win and an expected loss might flip flop that scenario but the net result is the same.
So, bottom line projection: 11-5. The Packers will win the North Division outright and, obviously, make the playoffs. More than a few pundits have the Packers reaching the Super Bowl. If key players stay healthy and some of the youngsters that Thompson is relying on yet again to step up to NFL-level play come through, that is certainly within reach.