NFL team preview: Green Bay Packers
The Packers will carry an air of supreme confidence into the season.
Open talk and even printed T-shirts compliments of linebacker Nick Barnett that expressed the Super Bowl aspirations harbored by the team at the start of training camp in late July was backed up by what was accomplished on the field the ensuing five weeks.
The Aaron Rodgers-led offense took center stage, running the defenses of the Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts ragged in the first three preseason games. With yards through the air and points aplenty for the starting group, plenty of people have taken notice, including those of an influential ilk.
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"He had a really good year last year and has a lot of weapons," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said of Rodgers, who threw for 195 yards and three touchdowns in only one half in their teams' exhibition meeting Aug. 26.
"They really do some things that play to his strengths," Manning added. "He throws the ball down the field really, really well. He's a got a ton of ability."
Rodgers, who was slated to play only a series in the preseason finale Sept. 2 at the Kansas City Chiefs, summed up his play in August as "very productive." That may be an understatement.
"The last two years, I felt real good about where we've been at the end of preseason, but I feel better this year because I think we have a little bit more of an identity on offense, where last year we made a lot of big plays but I don't really felt like we ever established kind of what we wanted to do," Rodgers said. "And, now it's pretty obvious. We're going to find ways to get the ball to (tight end) Jermichael (Finley) and find ways to get the ball to (receivers) Donald (Driver) and Greg (Jennings), Jordy (Nelson), James (Jones).
"When we get into a rhythm like we have this preseason on offense, we're going to be tough to stop. It's fun."
The Packers were all about fun times the second half of last season. They won seven of their final eight games to finish 11-5 and seemed poised to make a deep postseason run.
Putting up 45 points on scoreboard in an NFC wild-card game at the Arizona Cardinals on Jan. 10 wasn't enough for the Packers to advance, however. Arizona did them six points better, winning 51-45 in overtime on a fumble return by Karlos Dansby after a sack of Rodgers in the NFL's highest-scoring playoff game.
"I think we were as hot as any team in the league," Packers president Mark Murphy said. "It was a heartbreaking loss, but I think it's the kind of loss that will inspire us and help us in the future."
Cornerback Charles Woodson, one of the team's veteran leaders, couldn't let the sting of that loss go seven months later amid the heat of training camp.
"Defensively, we just dropped the ball," said Woodson, last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Didn't make any plays, let them run up and down the field, picking up completions on third down and scoring touchdowns and that sort of thing.
"We don't want to go into this season thinking we have an offense that can put up points so we can just go out there (as a defense) and whatever happens, happens. That's not taking any pride in what you do as a professional. We won't go out there like that."
Just the kind of tough talk to be expected from a team that is thinking big this season.
COACHING: Mike McCarthy, 5th year, 5th with Packers (39-28).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 11-5 (2nd in NFC North); lost 51-45 in overtime to the Arizona Cardinals in NFC wild-card game.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 12-4 (1st in NFC North); lose in NFC title game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Packers defense will have to make do until at least late October without one half of its usual starting secondary from a season ago.
The team placed Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris and strong safety Atari Bigby on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list Aug. 31. Both players failed to pass their physicals at the start of training camp a month earlier.
Harris is 9 1/2 months removed from suffering tears of multiple ligaments in his left knee. Bigby required another procedure on his surgically repaired left ankle in early August.
As PUP casualties, Harris and Bigby won't be able to practice or play with the team the first six weeks of the season. They will be eligible to return to the field after the Oct. 17 game against the Miami Dolphins for a period of 21 days, and the Packers can decide at any time during that three-week window to activate the player, release him or keep him on PUP for the rest of the season.
Tramon Williams, primarily a nickel back with the Packers his first three years in the league, will start in place of Harris opposite reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson. Not clear is whom the Packers will use at the frequently employed nickel spot -- candidates are Brandon Underwood, who has been out since suffering a shoulder injury Aug. 26, Pat Lee and undrafted rookie Sam Shields.
Rookie Morgan Burnett is the starter at strong safety, where he has worked with the No. 1 unit since the spring as Bigby skipped all offseason workouts in lieu of not receiving a contract extension from the club.
--OLB Clay Matthews will enter the season not having played a preseason game after he aggravated a left hamstring injury a week into training camp. Matthews, who led the team with 10 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year after missing most of camp with the bad hamstring, expects to be ready to go for the Sept. 12 opener at the Philadelphia Eagles and make the start on the left side.
--DE Cullen Jenkins also is counting on being healthy again for Week 1 after being beset the final two weeks of camp with a calf injury.
--S Will Blackmon is iffy for the start of the season after soreness flared up in his surgically repaired left knee following the Aug. 26 preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts. Not having Blackmon leaves the Packers in a quandary on punt and even kickoff returns.
--OLB Brad Jones, who missed most of the preseason with first a back injury and then a bum shoulder, is penciled in as the opening-day starter on the right side opposite Matthews. Jones will probably have to wear a protective harness in the first game.
--OL Bryan Bulaga returned to practice for the final week of camp after a hip flexor kept him out of the Colts game and ultimately cost this year's first-round draft pick in his battle with incumbent Daryn Colledge at left guard.
--RB Quinn Porter was placed on injured reserve Aug. 31. A sprained medical-collateral ligament in his left knee, sustained in the Colts game, cost Porter's bid to win the No. 3 halfback job as an undrafted rookie out of tiny Stillman (Ala.) College.
--RB James Starks, who was sidelined the entire preseason, went on the PUP list Aug. 31 for the start of the season. Starks, a sixth-round draft pick out of Buffalo, suffered a hamstring injury in a spring workout after he missed his final college season in 2009 because of shoulder surgery.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/23, T/G Bryan Bulaga, Iowa -- Hip injury late in the preseason cost the powerful, quick and assignment-sure Bulaga from overtaking veteran incumbent Daryn Colledge for the starting job at left guard. Bulaga may not have to wait long to be pressed into action, since he's also backing up injury-prone Chad Clifton at left tackle.
Rd. 2/56, DE Mike Neal, Purdue -- Strong is a one-word description for Neal the football player and also for how he fared in the preseason. Pass-rush ability both at right end behind Cullen Jenkins and inside in sub packages will keep Neal active on a weekly basis in the defensive-line rotation.
Rd. 3/71, S Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech -- Incumbent Atari Bigby's contract holdout the entire offseason and then his injury setback before training camp allowed Burnett to ease into and snag the starting job at strong safety. His playmaking skills will be needed right away in a short-handed secondary.
Rd. 5/154, TE Andrew Quarless, Penn State -- Out of the mold of rising standout Jermichael Finley with his pass-catching abilities, yet Quarless needs plenty of refinement to get in Finley's league. Entered the home stretch of the preseason on the bubble to make the opening-day roster at a crowded position.
Rd. 5/169, T/G Marshall Newhouse, Texas Christian -- The imposing Newhouse (6-4, 320 pounds-plus) made gains throughout the preseason despite bouncing between left guard and his natural position of left tackle. He figured to survive the final roster cut.
Rd. 6/193, RB James Starks, Buffalo -- The Packers are keeping the faith with Starks. His injury woes, which date back to shoulder surgery that cost him his final college season in 2009, landed him on PUP for at least the first six weeks of his would-be rookie campaign because of a nagging hamstring pull.
Rd. 7/230, DE C.J. Wilson, East Carolina -- Bubble candidate who was lackluster for much of the preseason but would be hard to give up on because of his pass-rush skills from the left side, typically the strong side for opposing offenses.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Aaron Rodgers. Backups -- Matt Flynn, Graham Harrell.
A league MVP-worthy season is brewing for Rodgers in year No. 3 as the starter. He was lights-out in the first three preseason games that were of significance for the starting unit, compiling a league-best passer rating of 141.2 by completing 41 of 53 passes for 470 yards and six touchdowns in a little more than four quarters.
Better decision making by Rodgers and improved pass protection left him with a gaudy "zero" in the interceptions and sacks categories, the latter of which was a bugaboo for most of Rodgers' Pro Bowl season in 2009 when he was sacked a league-high 50 times. Rodgers' escapability and willingness to sacrifice his body by taking off with the football -- he rushed for 316 yards and five touchdowns last season -- make him all the more dangerous for opposing defenses. Flynn remains Rodgers' top understudy for the third time in as many pro seasons and has gradually developed into reliable replacement who can lead and move the offense were something to happen to Rodgers. Harrell, the record-setting passer in college at Texas Tech, came on late in the preseason and seems a good bet to stick around on the practice squad.
The aerial assault in the preseason put the running game on the back burner, particularly for Grant, who had few opportunities to get his hands on the football. His exhibition contributions will be more remembered for a concussion that knocked him out in the first game and a pair of fumbles. He is healthy for the start of the season, but the miscues are un-Grant-like -- he has the league's longest active streak of 291 rushes without a fumble, dating to the end of the 2008 season. Jackson also was guilty of putting the ball on the turf, a rare blemish in a solid camp that had head coach Mike McCarthy touting the fourth-year player as "every-down back" material.
An injury epidemic in camp -- promising undrafted rookie Quinn Porter landed on injured reserve with a sprained knee, Lumpkin missed time and rookie Starks starts the season on the PUP list because of a bad hamstring -- means the Packers may have to go with Grant and Jackson as their only true halfbacks and rely on the versatile and good-hands Kuhn in a pinch. That could help Johnson, a battering ram for a lead blocker, survive the final roster cut since Hall and Kuhn aren't considered expendable for the value they also bring to special teams.
The emergence of first-year castoff Crabtree, who jumped out from the start of camp as the group's best blocker and a solid contributor on special teams, created a veritable logjam. Since the Packers will probably be down a man from the usual three halfbacks they have on the 53-man roster, retaining all five tight ends for the start of the season isn't far-fetched. Lee is the blue-collar, soft-spoken veteran. Havner made his mark last season with four touchdown catches and is more of a commodity because he can play linebacker in an emergency. Quarless is far from polished as a rookie, but his athleticism, pass-catching skills and high ceiling would be hard to pass on. Then, of course, there's Finley, who has quickly established himself as beast among defenseless men. He could be the team's top receiver in 2010 after his breakout sophomore season of 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns.
Even with the evolution of Finley as Rodgers' favorite target, Jennings and Driver are sure to have a lot of passes thrown their way. Jennings is out to make amends after his numbers dipped slightly to 68 receptions for 1,113 yards and just four touchdowns in 2009. Driver, who has six straight 1,000-yard seasons, needs only 607 yards to break Hall of Famer James Lofton's franchise record of 9,656 receiving yards. Driver feels rejuvenated at 35 after undergoing minor surgeries on both knees early in the offseason. Jones and Nelson, who was sure-handed, made strides in the preseason and figure to get more chances in McCarthy's liberal use of multi-receiver sets. Issues with Swain's surgically repaired knee from last year cropped up in camp, making him an iffy candidate if the Packers decide to hold onto five wideouts.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Chad Clifton, LG Daryn Colledge, C Scott Wells, RG Josh Sitton, RT Mark Tauscher. Backups -- LT/LG Bryan Bulaga, C/G Jason Spitz, RT/RG T.J. Lang, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, LT/LG Marshall Newhouse, G Allen Barbre, RT Breno Giacomini, RG Nick McDonald.
It took most of the preseason to settle, but the Packers are content with the starting five who'll line up in the Sept. 12 season opener at the Philadelphia Eagles. Colledge, whose up-and-down play last season contributed greatly to Rodgers' high sacks total, held firm to retain his job when a surprise move was made a week into camp to slide Bulaga inside from his natural tackle spot and challenge the incumbent. Bulaga, the team's first-round draft pick this year, seemingly had the inside track to win the spot before a hip injury sidetracked him with two weeks left. Bulaga will have to be ready at a moment's notice to jump in given the 34-year-old Clifton's recent track record of injury setbacks and potentially another letdown from Colledge. Wells and Sitton bring consistently good blocking to the interior. Tauscher, 33, is as solid and dependable as ever, after he missed the first half of the 2009 season recovering from knee surgery. Onetime starter Spitz could be dangled in trade possibilities before the season starts. Lang bounced back from wrist surgery in the offseason and is a starter of the future. Once-promising prospects Barbre and Giacomini could be on their way out in favor of the younger likes of Newhouse, an imposing fifth-round draft pick this year.
The loss of three-year starter Johnny Jolly for the season to a league-imposed suspension for a breach of its substance-abuse policy left the Packers in a bind up front to start the season, unless they land a reinforcement or two off the scrap heap. For now, the depth on the line drops off precipitously after the starting trio and Neal, a second-round draft pick who is the real deal as a brute force both outside and inside in sub packages. Jenkins is the group's only proven pass rusher, but he was slowed by a calf injury late in the preseason. Jolly's prolonged absence, coupled with the need to get 2009 first-round draft pick Raji on the field full time at his natural nose position, prompted the move of Pickett to the outside, where it remains to be seen if he can be as disruptive as Jolly was. Would-be 2007 first-round bust Harrell held up for most of camp with his chronically sore back and may have earned a reprieve for another season since the Packers have little else to count on in reserve. Either Wynn, who suffered a concussion toward the end of the preseason, or marginal seventh-round draft pick Wilson could be on the out.
LINEBACKER: Starters -- LOLB Clay Matthews, ILB Nick Barnett, ILB A.J. Hawk, ROLB Brad Jones. Backups -- ILB/OLB Brandon Chillar, ILB Desmond Bishop, OLB Brady Poppinga, OLB Frank Zombo, OLB Cyril Obiozor, ILB Robert Francois, ILB Alex Joseph.
Although the Packers aren't hurting for players in the linebacker corps, no one knows for sure what they have with the group. The projected starting foursome never played together in a single preseason game. Matthews, who came on like gangbusters as a rookie in 2009 to lead the team with 10 sacks and earn a Pro Bowl trip, dropped out after the first week of camp with a recurring hamstring injury. He is expected to be fine for the opener as he moves from the right side to the left side to line up away from Jenkins and keep the opposing offense honest. Jones, who took over for an injured and since-departed Aaron Kampman on the left side the latter part of last season, will try to give it a go on the right side in Week 1 after missing most of the preseason with back and shoulder injuries. The interior duo of Barnett, who had some knee work done in the offseason, and Hawk, who had an ankle sprain, also missed time in August. Chillar, who was briefly in the running for Jones' starting spot, will replace Hawk in the nickel. Zombo, an undrafted rookie converted from defensive end, took advantage of the rash of injuries on the outside to become the group's top pass rusher in preseason games and likely earn a roster spot.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Tramon Williams, SS Morgan Burnett, FS Nick Collins. Backups -- RCB Al Harris, CB Brandon Underwood, CB Pat Lee, CB Sam Shields, CB Jarrett Bush, SS Atari Bigby, S Derrick Martin, S Charlie Peprah, S Will Blackmon.
If widespread deficiencies in pass coverage in the preseason games are any indication, the Packers could be in a world of trouble trying to contain teams on the early part of the schedule with Harris, one of the game's best shutdown corners, out for at least the first six games as a PUP casualty. Other than Woodson, the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year who had a career-high nine interceptions and caused four fumbles, the defense is without a reliable playmaker at the cornerback spots. Williams, thought to be an emerging player, was exposed by the Colts' Peyton Manning in the preseason game. What's more, the nickel spot previously occupied by Williams is a big question mark with no one jumping out from the group of Underwood, who suffered a shoulder injury in the Colts game, Lee and undrafted rookie Shields. The Packers are in better hands at safety, provided they don't lose two-time Pro Bowl selection Collins and promising third-round draft pick Burnett. The rookie takes over for Bigby, who joins Harris in PUP purgatory the first part of the season after having a second surgery on his left ankle in early August.
A big push in the homestretch of the preseason vaulted Masthay, a first-year player, to front-runner status in the big punting battle with Australian rookie Bryan. The final decision hinged on their performances in the preseason finale Sept. 2 at the Kansas City Chiefs. The survivor also will be the holder on kicks for Crosby, who overcame early struggles in camp to put up encouraging numbers after he was under the gun for a career-worst 75 percent on field goals (27 of 36) in 2009. The Packers were mediocre on returns after Blackmon suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4 last season. His availability for the start of this season is up in the air as he endured recurring soreness with the surgically repaired knee.