Posted on: August 21, 2010 3:00 pm
Edited on: August 21, 2010 3:02 pm
Nearly 8 months ago Green Bay Packers fans watched as their team lost their last game of the 2009 campaign in heartbreaking fashion. Since then expectations have been high for the 2010 Packers.
After four straight seasons of being the youngest team in the NFL, the Packers will prove that their youth has gained enough experience to make a serious Super Bowl run. It will also be the tightest NFC North division race since the 2003 season when the Minnesota Vikings lost to the Arizona Cardinals on a last second touchdown in week 17, yielding a division championship to the Packers.
This season both the Packers and Vikings should finish 12-4. They should split the head-to-head series and go 4-2 in the division. This would mean whichever team has the better conference record will be granted the division title. This should be the Packers’ year to claim the division title.
Hopes may be so high since the offense is returning every starter from last year. Last year the offense was third in the NFL in scoring and first in the NFL with the fewest giveaways. In total offensive yards per game they were ranked sixth in the NFL, fourteenth in rushing, and seventh in passing. However, they were also first in the NFL in allowing 50 sacks during the season, 41 of these came in the first nine games and only nine were allowed in the final eight games. So although this may be the only question mark on the offensive side for the Pack, they have proven to be a solid group when healthy.
So looking at the quarterback position on this team, the Packers have little to worry about with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. Last year Rodgers threw for 4,434 yards and 30 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He can make all the throws with a very accurate arm for short quick throws like their staple slant route, but has the arm strength to heave it deep for the big play as well.
However, he did take those 50 sacks last season and not all the blame lies solely on the offensive line. While Rodgers has shown a quick release often he got caught holding the ball too long. Whether it was just waiting for someone to come open or looking for the deep throw when he should have checked down to a short pass, he needs to improve his decision making under pressure in order to avoid some of those sacks.
Behind Aaron Rodgers on the depth chart lays the unproven youngster in Matt Flynn. Flynn has big game experience on the college level when he led the LSU Tigers to a championship his final year, but he has very little experience on the NFL level. During the off-season the Packers’ staff worked with Flynn to improve his mechanics and arm strength. The coaches really like this guy and feel he can step in and back up Rodgers if needed. Whether he is be able to perform to the same level or not is doubtful.
The running backs for the Packers are led by Ryan Grant who is just below the elite status and he may never attain it. This is because the Packers are pass first/run second offense. This can also be attributed to the amount of touches that are given to fullbacks John Kuhn and Korey Hall on the goal line. Despite this Grant is still a very solid back gaining 1,253 yards (7th in the NFL) and scoring 11 touchdowns. Grant takes very good care of the ball and finishes runs well. As his past has shown us, Grant will start out slow and finish the season strong.
Behind Grant this year will be Brandon Jackson and either Kregg Lumpkin or rookie James Sparks. Jackson is a reliable back then has flashy moments, but has never been able to emerge as a player that demands touches. Lumpkin is in his second year and is battling a hamstring injury while fighting for a roster spot against James Sparks who was drafted in the sixth round.
The wide receivers for the Packers are a strong group that is led by veterans Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. Many think Driver is dwindling while Greg Jennings is on the rise. However, we should see this proven half true; yes, Jennings is on the rise, but Driver will not diminish in performance, but will most likely stay steady in production. Behind these guys are Jordy Nelson and James Jones who are fighting for the third spot and are followed by Brett Swain in the fifth spot.
This is one of the deepest receiver corps in the NFL. Mike McCarthy has said that these guys can play any spot; from the slot to wide out any one of the five can do it all. They are always fighting for those yards after the catch (YAC) too. In fact, for the last few years they have been among the best in the YAC category. To further improve on Rodgers target the receivers are sufficiently backed up by a talented group of tight ends.
The tight ends are led by Jermichael Finley who is right now the talk around the NFL as an up-and-coming playmaker. Finley is very athletic and provides nightmarish coverage problems for opposing secondaries. Finley even said on a radio interview that he predicts to gain 1,200 receiving yards this year. Behind Finley are Donald Lee (reliable hands and known for blocking), and Spencer Havner (a converted linebacker who caught 4 TDs last year).
The offensive line is the biggest knock on this offense if not on this team. Injuries and youth plagued them early on last season. They had to rely heavily on young or inexperienced players like T.J. Lang and Allen Barbre. Chad Clifton and Jason Spitz faced nagging injuries most of the season. The line got a boost in this year’s draft when the Pack used their 23rd overall pick on Bryan Bulaga out of Iowa who will be groomed to take over for the aging Clifton. The projected starts would be Chad Clifton at LT; Jason Spitz at LG; Scott Well at C; Josh Sitton; at RG; and Mark Tauscher at RT.
This defense has incredible ability to be a great defense. Last year they led the league in interceptions with 30 and also led the NFL in turnover difference at +24. In total defense they were second in the NFL; against the rush they were first in NFL and although they struggled late in the season they still finished fifth in the NFL against the pass. They were also seventh in the NFL in fewest points allowed. So this defense has the ability to keep the team in the game when the offense is struggling. Going into their second season under Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense they should be even better. Just a side note: in 1996 when the Packers won the Super Bowl they were first in the NFL in offense and defense. They certainly have that ability this year.
The defensive line is the starting point for the 3-4 and is anchored by Ryan Picket at NT, B.J. Raji at LE, and Cullen Jenkings at RE. Picket is a force in the middle and knows how to eat up two blockers. Raji was nagged by an ankle injury most of his rookie year, but in year two should be good to go. Jenkins has great pass rushing ability and with more experience under the 3-4 we should see his stats improve. Johnny Jolly would probably be a starter on the line, but in June the NFL suspended him for the season for breaking the league’s substance abuse policy. Justin Harrell and Jarius Wynn and further depth to the line
Linebacker may be the deepest position on this defense and is very talented. It is led by Nick Barnett at MLB followed by A.J. Hawk in the middle, second-year phenom Clay Matthews and Aaron Kampman’s replacement Brad Jones on the outside. The backups are no slouches either consisting of Desmond Bishop, Brandon Chillar, and Brady Poppinga. These guys need to step up for this defense to reach its true potential.
The secondary may be the weakest point on this defense, but also has some great individual talent. Charles Woodson, last year’s defensive player of the year, will anchor the corner position. On the other side Al Harris is likely to miss the first couple of games this season so we should see Tramon Williams getting the starts in his place. From there the experience really drops off. Next on the depth chart are Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood. The coaches really like Underwood and is really needed to step up. Lee suffered an injury last year as well as Will Blackmon which left Jarrett Bush to get beat up by better wide receivers. The key for these guys are to stay healthy and play beyond their experience.
The safety positions will be manned by Pro Bowler Nick Collins and rookie Morgan Burnett. FS Nick Collins may be one the best safeties in the NFC with great closing speed and incredible ball skills as well as great return ability once he has the ball. Normally manning the SS spot is Atari Bigby, but another surgery has pushed his return timetable back again. This has led the way for Burnett to already have taken every snap with the first team defense since the beginning of training camp. He needs to mature fast, but has the skill sets to do so.
The special teams for the Pack has a big hole as last year’s punter Jeremy Kapinos was let go. The two guys fighting for the job are Chris Bryan (no college and first year in NFL) and Tim Masthay (second year). Neither one of these guys have ever punted a football in an NFL game.
Mason Crosby was unreliable at times last season. Whether it was a lack of confidence or not, that needs to change this year for the Pack to be successful. If Crosby can’t fix this problem he may find himself out of a job next year.
The return game needs some major improvement on both sides from last year. Will Blackmon, the normal return man, was out all season with an injury which left the Pack trying to find a suitable replacement most of the season.
The kicking team struggled stopping other teams return game last year and need to do a better job at keeping them from giving other offenses good field position. This a key portion of the special teams that will need to improve to help out the defense.
Overall, the Packers have question marks on the offensive line, the secondary, and special teams. They have the pieces in place to improve in these areas. If Coach McCarthy can get things shored up and these pieces ready to go then the Packers will be heavy favorites to compete for the NFC title and a Super Bowl championship is not out of reach if they play to their ability and are hot come playoff time.