Normally teams who win the Super Bowl have a bit of a hangover the following season. Apparently no one told the Packers who promptly ripped off 13 straight wins to start the 2011 season. Aaron Rodgers took the next step as a quarterback, winning his first MVP and setting the league’s single season record for QB rating with a 122.5 rating. Added to the 6 straight they won en route to the Super Bowl in 2010, the Packers were on a 19 game winning streak and looked primed to, at the very least, become the first reigning Super Bowl Champion to win a playoff game since the 2004 Patriots.
However, the Packers went into Kansas City week 15 and lost to the sub .500 Chiefs. The 5 point loss ended their bid for a perfect season and was their first regular season loss of more than 4 points since week 10 of 2009. A few weeks later, after a 1st round bye, the Packers were upset at home by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Giants and failed to win a single playoff game.
Still, the Packers have a lot going for them. They return almost their entire core from last season’s 15-1 team, including Aaron Rodgers, who is still in the prime of his career, heading into his age 29 season. They spent three picks in the first 2 rounds on defensive players who I think can have an immediate impact for a defense which ranked 19th in the league with 22.4 points per game allowed. And this time around, they won’t have the pressure of defending their Super Bowl title. In their last 23 games (including playoffs), they’re still a remarkable 21-2.
While the Packers’ record over the past 23 games is remarkable, Rodgers’ numbers over his last 27 might be even more remarkable. Rodgers has completed 606 of 886 (68.4%) for 7912 yards (8.9 YPA), 72 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. He’s also rushed for 1136 yards and 12 touchdowns in 4 years. The only hole you can poke in him is how well his backup, Matt Flynn, played, but you can poke similar holes in Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Brady’s Patriots went 11-5 without him in 2008 and Brees didn’t become an elite quarterback until he came to New Orleans, got in their system, and started playing half of his games in a dome. Meanwhile, Eli Manning was not elite until last season.
Rodgers was the quarterback of the league’s top scoring offense (35.0), set a new QB rating record (122.5), and was the quarterback of the league’s best regular season team (and the team with the league’s highest winning percentage, including playoffs), despite the fact that his defense ranked just 19th in the league in scoring defense.
Even in their playoff loss to the Giants (their first loss in the regular season or postseason by more than 6 points since week 10 of 2009), Rodgers played well, but was let down by 8 drops from his wide receivers. Rodgers completed 26 of 46 for 264 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception. If his receivers drop 1 or 2 balls rather than 8, that line looks very good and that’s a completely different ball game (his defense also gave up 37 points).
He was equally good at leading explosive drives downfield as he was at taking care of the ball, ranking first in YPA (9.3), 2nd in touchdowns (45, one behind Drew Brees, who played 16 games to Rodgers’ 15), 1st in interceptions (6), and 2nd in completion percentage (68.3%). His career QB rating of 104.1 is a record for quarterbacks with as many career attempts as him, as is his 3.47 TD:INT ratio, and his career 8.2 YPA is tied for highest in the Super Bowl era. Meanwhile, his 65.4% completion percentage is 4th all-time.
Even advanced statistics love him. No quarterback had a higher accuracy percentage (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, or batted passes) than his 80.6% and no quarterback had a higher deep accuracy percentage (20+ yards) than Rodgers’ 60.7%. His adjusted QB rating of 108.77 (doesn’t count drops, throw aways, hit as throwns, spikes, batted passes, or yards after catch) was 10 points higher than anyone else in the league. He was fully deserving of the league’s MVP last year and he is currently the best quarterback in the league. The only issue is if he gets hurt. Backup Graham Harrell is a former undrafted free agent who has never attempted a pass in the NFL. The Packers may trade for Colt McCoy, which would give them a young, experienced, and above average backup.
The Packers have never been much of a running team, but it’s worth noting they don’t have a lot of proven guys at the position. The Packers let Ryan Grant go and have given James Starks the lead back job. Starks is a talented back, but he’s had injury problems dating back to his days at the University of Buffalo. He missed his entire senior season there, which is why he fell to the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He also missed most of his rookie season with injuries and was on and off the injury report last year. He’s flashed talent in his career, but he’s still got only 162 career carries in 2 seasons.
Backup Alex Green only has 3 carries in his career. Green was a higher rated prospect than Starks and went in the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s definitely got talent, as evidenced by the 8.2 yards per carry he averaged in his final season at the University of Hawaii, but he missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL and only maxed out at 146 carries in a season dating back to his college days.
The 3rd back is Brandon Saine. Saine has all the measurables and ran a 40 in the 4.4s at 6-0 220, but went undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft because he had just 70 carries in his senior season at Ohio State and maxed out at just 146 carries. He carried the ball 18 times for 69 yards last year. Undrafted rookie running back Marc Tyler could also make the roster, but he has a history of injury problems and only maxed out at 171 carries in a season at USC. He also lost his starting job down the stretch last season and ran his 40 in the 4.7s at 5-11 219 so he lacks explosiveness. If things look bleak in Training Camp with the young guys, the Packers could call up Ryan Grant, who led the team in carries with 134 last year, or even Cedric Benson, both of whom are still free agents because of their age.
The good news for the Packers is that their passing game and offensive line are good enough for them to at least be a decent running team because their backs will often be facing spread out boxes and be supported by a strong offensive line. They’ll have plenty of holes to run in and all they need to do is be a solid compliment to their passing game. They ranked 26th in the league with 395 carries last year, 27th in total yards, and 26th in yards per carry. And they managed 15 wins and 35.0 points per game. And, if one of their young backs breaks out, that’s even better. Ryan Grant was a former undrafted free agent and he did pretty well for a few years as the Packers’ lead back.
I’ve mentioned the offensive line already, the Packers have a solid bunch upfront that pass and run blocks equally well. Yes, they gave up 41 sacks last year (though Flynn took 5 of them), good for 11th most in the league. However, Rodgers is actually a quarterback who takes a few more sacks than he needs to, at least last year, an Achilles heel in his game. Rodgers was 6th worst among eligible quarterbacks last year, taking a sack on 22.6% of the plays in which he is pressured. Some of this has to do with how much Rodgers likes to run around in the pocket, as well with how much the Packers throw deep downfield.
Meanwhile, their offensive line graded out 10th in pass blocking efficiency on ProFootballFocus and Rodgers was only 17th among 24 eligible quarterbacks in terms of percentage of snaps he was pressured. The Packers offensive line only allowed him to be pressured on 27.4% of plays and Rodgers ranked 6th in accuracy percentage under pressure with 63.2%. The Packers have above average starters in 4 of 5 spots on their offense line.
The one player who struggles is left tackle Marshall Newhouse. Newhouse was actually ProFootballFocus’ worst rated offensive tackle last season with a -41.8 rating. Including playoffs, he allowed 9 sacks, 8 quarterback hits, and 41 quarterback pressures, while committing 7 penalties and struggling mightily as a run blocker.
Newhouse, a 2010 5th round pick, was not supposed to be out there as he only stepped in because Chad Clifton got hurt and rookie Derek Sherrod wasn’t ready. Clifton has since been cut and may retire. 2011 1st round pick Sherrod is supposed to be the long term starter, but he might not play at all this year with a broken leg. At the very least, he’ll start the year on the PUP. If he can come back healthy and Newhouse continues to struggle, he could challenge him for the job. More likely, Sherrod will get his chance in 2013.
The Packers also mulled moving right tackle Bryan Bulaga from the right side to the left side, but decided against it because Bulaga plays so well on the right side. This is a smart idea because Bulaga, a 2010 1st round pick, ranked 5th among offensive tackles with a 14.5 rating last year. He was equally good as a run blocker and pass protector and allowed 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 21 quarterback pressures, while committing 6 penalties.
The interior of the Packers’ offensive line is their real strong point. Right guard Josh Sitton broke out in 2010 and has been a top-5 guard on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 2 years, including a #1 ranking in 2010. Last year, he ranked 5th with a 16.9 rating. He’s better as a pass protector than a run blocker, but above average in both areas. Last year, he surrendered 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 6 quarterback pressures, with 7 penalties.
Until last year, left guard was a weak spot, but TJ Ward broke out last year as Sitton had the year before, ranking 19th at his position with a 4.3 rating. He struggled as a run blocker, but ranked 6th at his position as a pass protector. He allowed 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 9 quarterback pressures. As long as he doesn’t regress, the Packers are fine at that position.
Between them, the Packers lost Scott Wells, which will hurt for continuity’s sake, but they should be able to replace the 4th ranked center’s play on the field. The Packers signed a cheaper alternative in Jeff Saturday, ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked center with a 14.2 rating. Saturday has been an elite center for seemingly forever. Though he’s now 37, Saturday is showing no signs of slowing down and plays a position that players can play effectively into their mid and late 30s. An equally good run blocker, Saturday allowed 2 sacks, 0 quarterback hits, and 9 quarterback pressures with the Colts last year, while committing only 3 penalties. The Packers’ strong interior line will really help an unproven bunch at running back and the Packers’ offensive line on the whole will once again do an adequate job giving Rodgers time to do his thing.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Also helping out Rodgers is a strong receiving corps. They let him down with 8 drops in their playoff loss to the Giants, but they’ve been very good for him otherwise. There’s a reason Matt Flynn was able to play so well in Rodgers’ absence last year. Donald Driver is now 37 and buried on the depth chart, but the next generation could end up being just as good. Driver has 735 catches for 10060 yards and 59 touchdowns in 13 seasons, but Greg Jennings has 389 catches for 6171 yards and 49 touchdowns in 6 seasons.
Jennings only missed a 4th straight 1000 yard year last year by 51 yards and would have almost definitely surpassed that had he not missed the final 3 games with injury, the first games with injury he’s missed since 2007 (coincidentally, the last time before last year that he didn’t have 1000 yards). In his absence, Jordy Nelson stepped up big time, catching 68 passes for 1263 yards and 15 touchdowns.
When throwing to Nelson last year, Rodgers averaged 13.6 YPA and threw 15 touchdowns to 1 interception. He also hit Nelson for 12.3 per catch on the fly, meaning before any yards after catch. Among players with 100 targets, only Vincent Jackson was hit deeper. His 22.1% touchdown rate is unsustainable even on this offense, as is an 18.6 YPC for a guy whose career average is 15.1 YPC, but Jennings’ 14.2 YPC last year was down from his career average of 15.9 YPC. Should both stay healthy, they could easily have 1000+ yards a piece.
Behind them on the depth chart, James Jones is penciled as the #3 receiver. He’s a reliable player who caught 38 passes for 635 yards and 7 touchdowns last year, but he’ll face competition from the more explosive Randall Cobb in Training Camp. Cobb, a 2011 2nd round pick, caught 25 passes for 375 yards and a score last year and is having a strong offseason. If Cobb outplays Jones in Training Camp, Jones, who is owed 2.5 million this year, could be traded. Driver, meanwhile, will be behind both of those guys on the depth chart, but he’s a locker room presence and totally fine with a limited role.
The X-factor is tight end Jermichael Finley. Finley has incredible talent and athleticism, but it’s always been one thing or another with him. In a 14 game stretch from 2009-2010, he caught 71 passes for 915 yards and 6 touchdowns, but he missed most of 2010 with injuries and last season he led all tight ends in drops with 12. Also, on a team that completed 68.1% of its passes last year, Finley caught just 60.4% of the passes targeted at him. For reference, Jordy Nelson caught 73.8% and Greg Jennings caught 69.8%. He’s also a poor blocker.
However, for as bad as all that sounds, Finley still finished last year with 55 catches for 767 yards and 8 touchdowns. The upside is still there and it’s possible injuries may have still been to blame for his play last year. But if they can get him going, it’ll be crazy. It’ll be just one more explosive weapon that Rodgers has to throw to and it’s not like he needs a whole lot. While they don’t have a lot of talent at running back, the Packers have so much talent where it matters that it seems possible they could lead the league in scoring again. At the very least, they’ll have a top-5 offense and average 30+ points per game, barring major injuries.
One thing that could be a bad sign for the Packers is that they had fewer than 20 turnovers last year. Turnovers are tough to predict on a yearly basis and very inconsistent. There have been 36 teams since 2002 with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. In fact, teams that have 20 or fewer turnovers average just 2 turnovers less per season the next season than do teams that averaged 35 or more turnovers in their next season.
However, if there’s any team I trust to repeat those numbers and break the trend, it’s Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Peyton Manning and the Colts are the one exception over the last 10 years, making the list 5 times. Rodgers is that good. Besides, 2.69 fewer wins would still mean 12 or 13 wins for the Packers. Not too shabby. Even if they don’t score 35 points per game again, they’ll still score plenty.
The offense is not going to be a problem for the Packers. The defense could be. They may have won 15 games last year, but they did rank 19th in scoring defense. That’s not a sustainable model going forward and it’s very tough to count on the offense to score 35 points per game again, even with all of their talent. Only the 2007 New England Patriots have ever surpassed that number. They’ll have to play better defensively this year.
Another thing that is not sustainable is their takeaways and turnover margin. As they are offensively, turnovers are very inconsistent on a yearly basis and not always related to talent. The difference between average takeaways by teams who had previously had 35 or more and by teams who had previously had 20 or less is minimal. Teams with 35 or more had 27.5 in their next season and teams with 20 or fewer had 25.8 in their next season.
I’ll repeat it, it’s very tough to predict turnover totals on a yearly basis. Teams with 35 or more have had 10.58 fewer turnovers and 2 fewer wins in their next season. While I give them the benefit of the doubt offensively, I don’t defensively. On top of that, teams with differential of +15 have had a differential 16.35 points lower and won 2.3 fewer games the following season. Green Bay’s +24 differential definitely counts.
So did they do enough to improve their defense in the offseason? Rookies Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, and Nick Perry will all have impacts this season, but they’re just rookies. The good news is that the Packers actually ranked 2nd in scoring defense in 2010 with 15.0 points per game allowed and they still have a lot of the same players. They have talent. They just didn’t play like it last year. And defensive coordinator Dom Capers is one of the best in the business.
Perhaps the biggest example of a player playing well in 2010 and not in 2011 is nose tackle BJ Raji. After ranking 10th at his position on ProFootballFocus in 2010 with a 15.8 rating, Raji graded out 2nd to last among defensive tackles in 2011 with a -20.2 rating. He was his position’s worst player against the run and no one was within 5 points of him. He didn’t rush the passer well either with 3 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 19 quarterback pressures on 579 pass rush snaps (4.0%). In 2010, he had 8 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 643 pass rush snaps (7.9%). The 2009 1st round pick is only heading into his age 26 season so there’s definitely bounce back potential for him.
One player gone from their Super Bowl team is Cullen Jenkins and the Packers really missed his pass rush ability. Their top 3 players at defensive end last year, Ryan Pickett, Jarius Wynn, and CJ Wilson, all were horrible as pass rushers. They all ranked in the bottom 6 at their position as pass rushers. The trio combined for 3 sacks, 0 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback pressures on a combined 824 pass rush snaps, good for a combined rate of 2.8%.
Add in the combined 3 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures that Raji, Howard Green, and Mike Neal had on a combined 812 pass rush snaps and you get a defensive line that had a pass rushing rate of 3.4%. That’s awful. No wonder they only had 29 sacks, good for fewest among playoff teams and tied for 3rd worst in the league.
Those guys were solid against the run as a group, especially Ryan Pickett, but they were awful pass rushers. Pickett is a very strong player against the run. He just doesn’t get any pass rush. That was fine in 2010 when Raji was rushing the quarterback well and Cullen Jenkins was there, but not last year. The Packers will be hoping that Jerel Worthy can at least be Cullen Jenkins lite in a situational role and that Raji can bounce back. That will allow the one-dimensional Pickett to be more of an asset than a liability.
At linebacker, the Packers have their best defensive player. Clay Matthews only had 6 sacks last year, but graded out above average against the run and in coverage and a deeper look at his pass rushing stats suggest he had a very good season in that aspect last year. He may have only had 6 sacks, but he had 22 quarterback hits, and 43 quarterback pressures on 502 pass rushes, good for a very impressive 14.1% rate that suggests he was just unlucky in 2011. In fact, in his amazing 2011 season, his pass rush rate was “only” 13.3%. He never regressed. People have just been looking at the wrong statistics. He ranked 5th among rush linebackers last year with a 30.0 rating.
What’s been most impressive about Matthews’ play is that he’s been doing this despite constant double and triple teams, especially last year. The Packers’ defensive line obviously isn’t going to draw much attention from Matthews on passing plays and the opposite rush linebacker has never done that either. Last year, that opposite rush linebacker was Erik Walden.
Walden wasn’t a terrible pass rusher with 3 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and 22 quarterback pressures on 426 pass rush snaps, good for a solid 9.1% rate. However, he didn’t draw any attention away from the defense and played well primarily because he saw so little attention from the defense. He was also terrible against the run, last at his position by 8 points and his -20.5 overall rating ranked dead last among rush linebackers.
The Packers used a 1st round pick on Nick Perry to replace Walden. Perry is a much more talented pass rusher than Walden. He’ll draw more attention away from Matthews and could become a very deadly player opposite Matthews, who will draw a lot of attention regardless. The Packers have never had another good pass rusher opposite Matthews and are hoping the Matthews/Perry duo can become like the Brian Orakpo/Ryan Kerrigans and James Harrison/LaMarr Woodleys of the 3-4 defense world.
Between them, the Packers will start Desmond Bishop and AJ Hawk at middle linebacker. Bishop broke out in 2010 in place of an injured Nick Barnett and continued his strong play in 2011 with Barnett getting exiled to Buffalo. Bishop ranked 14th among middle linebackers with a 14.5 rating. He struggled some in coverage, but played very well against the run and even added value as an above average blitzer up the middle, with 5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 12 quarterback pressures on 150 pass rush snaps (15.3%).
Hawk, meanwhile, has been a disappointment since the Packers selected him 5th overall in 2006. He was given a pretty big contract last offseason, but did not live up to it. He graded out below average with a -3.0 rating. He got too large of a signing bonus (8 million) last offseason to lose his starting job just yet, but he’ll be pushed by 2011 6th round pick DJ Smith, who is having a great offseason. Smith should see an increase in the 267 snaps he had last year, during which he played very well. The coaching staff is high on him and may have unearned another gem. He could start in 2013 and beyond.
The Packers pass defense was 7th in the league in 2010, thanks to the deadly duo of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams at cornerback. However, that number fell to 27th in 2011. The weakened pass rush had something to do with it, but Tramon Williams regressed thanks to an injury he played through and Charles Woodson finally started to show his age.
Williams was amazing in 2010. He ranked 5th at his position with a 15.7 rating and his 43.8 QB rating allowed ranked 1st at his position among eligible players (75% of his team’s snaps). In fact, no one was within 17 points of him in that statistic. He allowed 56 catches on 123 attempts (45.5%) for 690 yards (5.6 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions (including playoffs), while deflecting 15 passes and committing just 4 penalties.
However, a right shoulder nerve injury he suffered in the 2011 opener really limited him and made him unable to press cover effectively. Williams says he couldn’t even lift a 30-35 pound dumbbell over his head with his right arm last season. He was a much more middle of the pack cornerback last year, allowing 68 completions on 116 attempts (58.6%) for 1159 yards (9.9 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 12 passes and committing 3 penalties. Williams has been working all offseason to strengthen up the surrounding muscles and now says he can lift up to 90-100 pounds over his head. Along with BJ Raji, Williams is a bounce back candidate and that would be a huge lift for the Packers’ defense.
Opposite him, Charles Woodson is heading into his age 36 season. Though he led the league in interceptions last year, he really started to show his age and was frequently burned. He allowed 53 completions on 84 attempts (61.1%) for 611 yards (7.3 YPA), 4 touchdowns and those league leading 7 interceptions. He also deflected 7 passes and committed 9 penalties.
In 2012, Woodson could play more safety. If 2nd round rookie Casey Hayward can prove himself a worthy starter in Training Camp, Woodson could be one of their starting safeties. If not, Woodson will still almost definitely play there in sub packages, which would allow the Packers to get as many playmakers into the defensive backfield as possible on passing downs. Sam Shields, a solid nickel cornerback, will also come in on passing downs with Williams, Woodson, and Hayward.
The reason Woodson could have to move to safety is because Nick Collins, who used to be their starting safety, was cut thanks to a nasty neck injury that may prevent him from ever playing again. Collins was a talented player who the Packers really missed last season. In his absence, Charlie Peprah was awful with a -10.0 rating, good for 70th at his position out of 84 eligible. He was equally bad in pass coverage and against the run. He’ll definitely see fewer snaps this year and could be pushed for a starting job by a 2011 undrafted free agent that the Packers like, MD Jennings, and by Hayward, through him moving Woodson full time to safety. The Packers do have the other safety position locked down as Morgan Burnett is a solid starter.
If the rookies can have impacts right away and Tramon Williams and BJ Raji can bounce back, the Packers could have a solid defense this year to compliment their awesome offense, something they’ll need to go deep into the playoffs. If not, they could be even worse than last year as the 38 turnovers they forced last year probably aren’t sustainable. Given that their offense probably won’t quite average the 2nd most points per game in NFL history again, that could lead to a noticeable decline for the Packers in the win total. I lean with the former just because of how good the Packers are at discovering talent and how well coached defensively they are by defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
He’s not mentioned with the game’s elite coaches, but he should be. Mike McCarthy has a 63-33 career record and a Super Bowl ring and has been the architect and what’s become the league’s premier passing offense. A lot of people like to give departed offensive coordinator Joe Philbin a lot of the credit, but he didn’t even call the plays. McCarthy is one of the best offensive minds in the game.
The Packers probably won’t go 15-1 again and they probably won’t score 35.0 points per game again. Those two things are too hard to sustain. However, they have the chance to be a lot better on defense and if they can do that, it’ll go a long ways towards getting this team back to the Super Bowl. Remember, this team is still 21-2 in their last 23 total games, 17-1 in their last 18 regular season games and Aaron Rodgers’ numbers are off the charts since the middle of the 2010 season. They also haven’t lost a regular season game by more than 5 since the middle of the 2009 season.
Since the start of the 2009 season, this team has scored 1409 points and allowed 896, good for a differential of +513 points. Only New England has a higher differential (+518) in that time period. With an average of 470 points for and 299 points against in the past 3 years, they have a Pythagorean Expectation of an average of 11.9 wins per season over the past 3 years, which leads the league. Only New Orleans and New England (37) have more actual wins than the 36 that the Packers have in the last 3 seasons. I’m taking their consistency to have another strong regular season and go deep into the playoffs.
They have a rough schedule, especially in the division, as both the Bears and Lions are formidable opponents, but they could still go 5-1 in the division. Outside of the division, they host San Francisco, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Arizona, and Tennessee. San Francisco and New Orleans were the 2nd and 3rd seeds in the NFC last year, but I think San Francisco is overrated and New Orleans is not nearly as fearsome away from the Superdome and the other 3 games are going to be pretty easy at home. Over the 11 games mentioned, 10-1 or 9-2 seems likely.
Rounding things out, they go to Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, St. Louis, and New York to play the Giants. Seattle is always a tough place to play, Houston is a good team, while the Giants always play them tough, and Indianapolis and St. Louis should be improved. However, a record of 13-3 is not too crazy for this team. With San Francisco likely regressing this year and New Orleans having all kinds of off the field issues, the Packers should be the NFC’s #1 seed again unless the Giants channel their 2008 selves (minus Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the foot) or another unexpected team has a huge year.
Projection: 13-3 1st in NFC North