Packers Preview: Bouncing Back? Scary Thought
Led by arguably the best player in football, Green Bay is loaded again for a run at the top
The Green Bay Packers seem to have everything a professional football team could ever want:
• An innovative offense directed by a likeable but no-nonsense head coach and quarterbacked by a 29-year-old superstar.
• A multifaceted, young, athletic defense.
• A front office led by a respected former NFL player (team president Mark Murphy), along with a venerated general manager: Ted Thompson, a keen talent evaluator who has at his disposal one of the best scouting departments in football. In the last four years, three of his top executives—John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie and John Dorsey—have been named general managers.
• A quaint hometown where fans’ loyalty is deep and unwavering, and where the pressure to win is palpable but not suffocating.
• A rich history that includes not just 13 world championships (dating to 1929), but also a Super Bowl victory and a 15-win regular season within the last three years.
In a testament to the NFL’s fine line between good and great, these near-perfect Packers—who were perhaps better-stocked a year ago—are coming off a fairly underwhelming 11-5 season, in which their offense was not razor sharp (falling from first to fifth in scoring and third to 13th in yardage) and their defense uncharacteristically got out-schemed and embarrassed in a 45–31 divisional round loss at San Francisco.
Thus, Green Bay’s motif this year is "bouncing back." Make no mistake, though: This club is primed to do some extraordinary things in 2013.
When your quarterback is Aaron Rodgers, you can play any brand of football you want. Rodgers is tremendous in the pre-snap phase, whether it’s with cadence variation, protection adjustments, hot routes or full-fledged audibles. He’s as good, if not better, after the snap, with his deft decision-making, quick release, strong-armed accuracy and sensational improvisational skills. Simply put: The sixth-year starter is the best football player in the world right now.
Head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements know that the more versatile the weapons around Rodgers, the more dangerous this offense will be. That’s why Randall Cobb, whose skill set is that of a souped-up Antwaan Randle El (let’s call the third-year pro Antwaan Randall Cobb), is poised to be the breakout superstar of 2013.
With injuries costing wideouts Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings a combined 17 starts last year, Cobb led the Packers with 80 catches for 954 yards, lining up in the slot (where 63 of his catches came from), out wide and even in the backfield (where he had 10 rushing attempts for 132 yards). He became Rodgers’ go-to man on third down and late in sandlot plays. This season he will be the go-to man, period. Don’t be surprised if Cobb’s total offensive productivity jumps 60%, especially with Greg Jennings gone via free agency, as McCarthy will undoubtedly make him the fulcrum of several new flex designs.
When Cobb was still doing everything for the Kentucky Wildcats, the Packers player whom analysts were rhapsodizing about was Jermichael Finley. No one had ever seen a tight end with his pliability and length. Unfortunately, dropped passes and immaturity have kept Finley from fully shining. But seeing that the 26-year-old steadied his ship a bit last season and is once again playing for a new contract, there’s still plenty of optimism for 2013. The valuable formation versatility Finley lends this offense should pack more punch with him playing second fiddle to Cobb.
Surrounding Green Bay’s two movable chess pieces is a potent collection of more conventional skill-position players. Jordy Nelson is one of the best boundary targets in football. Seventh-year man James Jones, whom Rodgers implored the front office to re-sign in 2011, can play outside or inside. Though still not fully immune to intermittent gaffes, Jones, who led the league with 14 touchdown receptions last year, has commendably ironed out many of the wrinkles that once plagued his intermittently electrifying game. He is very good on quick slants, which are a staple of this "West Coast spread"-styled passing attack.
Behind Jones, Jarrett Boykin is ready to contribute regularly as the No. 4 receiver. He got 96 snaps in 10 games as an undrafted rookie in 2012 and flashed impressive ball skills to offset his less-than-impressive rawness. His workload will largely be determined by how involved the tight ends are in whatever new designs the Packers have for Cobb.
Though last year the Packers used multi-tight end personnel on just over 25% of their snaps (23rd most in the league), if healty they’re four-deep behind Finley, with Andrew Quarless, D.J. Williams, Ryan Taylor and Matthew Mulligan. But only Quarless, who is battling a thigh injury, is capable of flexing to the slot (where he’s still not much of a mismatch creator). The rest are all more move-oriented H-back types.
McCarthy makes good use of motion blockers. His system is often regarded as wide open, but in reality he strives to be a steady, balanced play-caller—in part because Green Bay’s feeble front line needs the benefit of unpredictability. The ground game has a great array of formations and blocking angle constructions. It’s one of the few in the league that still leans on a fullback (fan favorite John Kuhn, who played about 38% of the snaps last year).
The Packers’ 106 yards rushing per game last season ranked 20th in the NFL. But in actuality their run attack was less stable than that, as just 82 yards per game (seventh fewest in the league) came from tailbacks. With James Starks being too methodical to feature, 2011 third-round pick Alex Green having decent burst but ho-hum instincts in traffic and "starter" DuJuan Harris having the juice to turn the corner but offering nothing special in all other phases, Thompson gave the backfield a makeover on draft night.
He selected Alabama grinder Eddie Lacy in Round 2 and UCLA’s shifty, compact Johnathan Franklin in Round 4. Lacy will get a crack at first- and second-down carries, while Franklin, a lauded pass-catcher, will likely compete with Green, an adept shotgun runner, for third-down duties.
Of course, it wouldn’t matter if the Packers had Edgar Bennett, Dorsey Levens or even Paul Hornung in the backfield if their offensive line doesn’t block better. Too often this front five, which is already bad in pass protection, fails to generate a push. Thompson also used the draft to address this, selecting tackle David Bakhtiari and guard J.C. Tretter, but not until the fourth round.
Green Bay’s biggest problem has been at tackle, where neither Marshall Newhouse nor Bryan Bulaga are trustworthy in pass pro. The two fourth-year players flipped sides this season so that Bulaga could try his hand at left tackle (the position that, you may recall, was once meant for 2011 first-rounder Derek Sherrod before his horrific leg injury in December of his rookie year). However, Bulaga, a 2010 first-round pick, tore his ACL early in camp.
Newhouse may slide back to the left side at some point, though his slow twitch is a major concern. Another option could be the nimble-footed but undersized Bakhtiari. He was reportedly pushing Newhouse at right tackle before Bulaga’s injury). Whoever winds up starting on the edges will have to be given regular aid through play design and protection slides.
Inside, T.J. Lang struggles in one-on-one scenarios, though less at guard than at right tackle. If he starts, it will be at right guard, as sixth-year stalwart Josh Sitton (the lone bright spot up front) is moving to the more dynamic left guard spot. The outlook is bleak between the guards, with callow center Evan Dietrich-Smith being a significant liability in pass protection. The saving grace for Green Bay is a superstar quarterback who is smart and mobile enough to overcome bad blocking. But part of that "overcoming" is Rodgers simply toughing out all 51 of Green Bay’s sacks allowed last year (second-most behind Arizona). That’s probably not a status quo the Packer brass is comfortable with.
Dom Capers made his name in the early ’90s working with Dick LeBeau in architecting Pittsburgh’s 3-4 zone blitz. But in his four years conducting Green Bay’s defense, Capers has gone with more man coverage concepts behind a multitude of amorphous fronts. Most defensive coordinators would love to play this way, but they don’t have the bevy of man-to-man corners for it.
Capers obviously does.
Tramon Williams is an agile bump-and-run presser. Assuming his bothersome shoulder maintains its recently regained strength, the seventh-year pro can match up to any wide receiver (including superstars Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall, with whom Williams always battles hard with safety help over the top). On the other side, another undrafted man, Sam Shields, has become one of the finest downfield boundary defenders in the league. Shields wants a long-term contract after signing his one-year RFA tender. There have reportedly been some negotiations, though Thompson may be reluctant to break the bank for Shields given how impressive 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House was filling in at outside nickel back in eight games last year.
House is capable of being an every-down player in the near future. But for now he’ll remain the No. 4, ahead of fifth-round rookie Micah Hyde and eighth-year utility man Jarrett Bush. He has no chance at being promoted to the No. 3 slot in 2013, as that spot is manned by Casey Hayward, who showed uncanny route anticipation skills and closing speed in intercepting six passes and deflecting 15 more as a second-round rookie last year.
Hayward plays a little more off-coverage than the rest of Green Bay’s corners because Capers loves to mix man concepts outside with zone concepts inside. Many of these concepts can lend freedom but also steep responsibility to safeties Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings, who are gradually improving as multidimensional box and space players. Burnett, who is a year younger than Jennings but has been in the league a year longer, is further along in his development; he’ll call a lot of the defensive signals this season.
In recent years, 2-4-5 nickel has been Green Bay’s preeminent package, even against some base offenses. That could change with uniquely skilled box corner Charles Woodson gone. Stylistically, Woodson’s likeliest replacement is run-attacking 2012 fourth-rounder Jerron McMillian. But while he has shown surprising efficacy in a variety of coverage responsibilities, McMillian still has miles to go before the idea of filling Woodson’s perhaps unfillable shoes can even be entertained.
The Packers probably would not have spent a first-round pick on defensive end Datone Jones if they didn’t plan on using more 3-4 fronts. With last year’s thundering second-rounder Jerel Worthy doubtful after January reconstructive knee surgery, Jones will get an opportunity to start ahead of sound-but-unremarkable C.J. Wilson. Jones has the ability to play multiple spots, which fits well with wide-bodied incumbents Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji, who play a variety of gap assignments each game.
The Packers have uncharacteristically chosen not to re-up Raji before his contract expires. Instead, they’ll spend 2013 evaluating whether his combination of athletic suddenness and raw power can be deployed with more week-to-week consistency. Talents like Raji are rare, which is why even with Wilson, fifth-round rookie Josh Boyd, 2012 fourth-rounder Mike Daniels and a hopefully rehabilitated Johnny Jolly providing depth up front, the Packers are likely to re-sign their 337-pound dancing bear after the season.
It’s almost sinful to be this far into the defensive section without having mentioned Clay Matthews, whom the Packers gladly re-upped (six years, $69.7 million). The four-year, four-time Pro Bowl defender very well could be the best pure edge-rusher in football, but he’s good for more than just swiftly skimming the corner. Matthews has blossomed into a fine playside run-defender—he has, of course, always had great backside chase ability—and a very effective spy or A-gap blitzer from a hybrid inside position.
Green Bay’s search for a viable threat opposite Matthews finally ceased this past offseason, as the hope is that 2012 first-rounder Nick Perry can acclimate to the pro game after his insipid rookie season ended with a wrist injury in early November. Perry won’t have the luxury of being a situational player this year. He’s slated to start ahead of undrafted second-year man Dezman Moses, a defensive end at Tulane who has shown decent aptitude in space but still doesn’t project as an every-down player. Also on the second string is a slimmed down Mike Neal, who is trying to convert from defensive end.
Rounding out the linebacking corps are inside men A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones. Hawk, though recently more adroit in coverage, is the epitome of average. Jones moved here from the outside last season, starting the final 10 games after knee injuries felled Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith. The fifth-year pro flashes an innate feel for identifying and attacking run gaps. His awareness in underneath zone coverage is far less refined, but his lateral agility and sideline-to-sideline speed give him a chance to be a viable pass defender once he gets comfortable. The depth behind this potential star consists of fringe filler Rob Francois and untested second-year pro Terrell Manning.
Not many kickers live to talk about the kind of slump Mason Crosby endured last year. Seven of his 11 misses were from 50-plus yards, but they were also the type of misses you generally see in "Win a New Car!" halftime exhibitions. What makes the Packers’ decision to stick with Crosby all the more perplexing is that, counting last season, he has completed more than 80% of his field goals just once in six years. This season he’s being pushed hard by undrafted Giorgio Tavecchio.
Tim Masthay was the only punter in the league last season to have more fair catches (26) than returns (24). Meanwhile, Cobb has given Green Bay a very dangerous return game, but his increased workload on offense will mean fewer reps on special teams.
Assuming Rodgers can keep overcoming a bad offensive line (which he can), this offense should be top-five again. Defensively, Green Bay’s young depth always seems to get replenished. Even if it doesn’t this season, there is a firm enough reserve of playmakers to fall back on. If the Packers stay healthy, they’re as strong a threat as ever to win the NFC.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.