Following their Super Bowl victory in 2011, the Green Bay Packers have not been the greatest January team. They’ve won only one playoff game since then, a dominant 24-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in last year’s wild-card game. The last time we saw them, they were outrun by the fast-paced read-option attack of the San Francisco 49ers, taking a stinging 45-31 loss. While the Packers had a decent defense last year, they weren’t dynamic or athletic enough to keep up with the Niners. I’m less worried about Green Bay’s ability to move the ball, as they have one of the best passing attacks in the league. That said, let’s break down the Packers’ units.
The Packers’ offense starts and ends with the best quarterback in the league, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers holds the career record for passer rating for anyone with at least 1,500 pass attempts, at an amazing 104.9. This is largely driven by his stellar 171/46 TD to interception ratio. Any team with a QB that puts up numbers like this has a chance to win every game. Seneca Wallace serves as the backup, and has game experience from his days with Cleveland and Seattle, so he could step in temporarily if Rodgers goes down with only some drop-off.
The Packers also boast a great receiving corps which, despite losing Greg Jennings to the rival Vikings and Donald Driver to retirement, should still be very good. Due to the injury woes of Jennings and Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb became Rodgers’s #1 option at receiver. He was just on the cusp of a 1,000-yard receiving season, and should easily break that barrier this year. I would expect the Packers to experiment with Cobb as a running back some this year as well, as he had 10 attempts for 132 yards last year. Nelson is just two years removed from a 1,200-yard season, so I expect a bounceback year from him. James Jones led the team in touchdown catches last year with14, so I expect good things from him too. Tight end Jermichael Finley should also be a good change-of-pace receiving option as well.
Lest you think that this offseason was only about shoring up the defense, the draft gave Green Bay the opportunity to improve their biggest Achilles heel on offense last year: the running game. They drafted Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin in the fourth round, and both were very productive in college. Lacy is projected to have the inside track on the starting job, and hopefully he can give an extra dimension to a team that ranked 20th in the NFL with just 106.4 rushing yards per game. Alex Green led the team with a whopping 464 yards. Lacy had nearly that many as a third-string back in 2010, much less when he was a featured back the last two years, so he should provide a boost at a critical skill position.
The Packers also have a shaky situation on their offensive line, as left tackle Bryan Bulaga is out for the year. Rookie David Bakhtiari will take Bulaga’s place on the line, which should show you how much confidence the team has in 2010 draftee Marshall Newhouse, who many thought would start but is listed second on the depth chart at both tackle spots. Rodgers reportedly wants to halve last season’s career-high 51 sacks, but I don’t see that happening with an inexperienced player protecting his blind side. Left guard Josh Sitton is the only player on the line that hasn’t struggled in run and pass protection.
The Packers’ defense was much maligned after the loss to the 49ers, but the reality is that this is not a bad unit, as they ranked 11th in the NFL with 336.8 yards and 21 points allowed per game. It is led by beefy linebacker Clay Matthews, who is also the team’s best pass rusher, having amassed double-digit sacks in 3 of his 4 years with the team. He leads a solid linebacking corps along with AJ Hawk and Brad Jones. Green Bay is hoping that Nick Perry can have a breakout season after showing some promise last year.
The Packers also have a good stable of defensive backs. Cornerback Tramon Williams is looking to recapture his 2010 form, when he had 6 interceptions. Many of them came at key moments too. Casey Heyward is probably their best prospect at the position, as he grabbed six picks of his own and displayed good coverage skills despite only starting 7 games. Safety Morgan Burnett has an ironman streak, having played every defensive snap for the Packers last season, and you may remember MD Jennings from the blown call at the end of the Seahawks game last year that took away his interception in the end zone and cost Green Bay a win.
One area where the defense has to get better is in the pass rush up front. The players slated to start on the defensive line in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme only generated 2.5 sacks last year. If they can get into teams’ backfields more often, maybe they have a better shot at defending the read-option, which they clearly could not do last year. If Green Bay can get better at defending the athletic and multidimensional offenses that rule the NFL today, they will have a much better shot at going deeper into the playoffs.
Special teams is a bit of a concern in Green Bay. Kicker Mason Crosby struggled last year, making only 63.6% of his field goals. He has a strong leg, but often seemed like he suffered from a mental block when it came time to kick, and put the Packers in some shaky situations on offense due to his misses. Punter Tim Masthay ranked in the middle to bottom in yards per punt and net yards last year. The team does have a set of fast and elusive players (Cobb, James Jones, Franklin, and even one of their corners if they want to get creative) to return kicks and punts.
Coaching and Outlook
Mike McCarthy has proven to be a good strategist during his tenure, and offensive coordinator Tom Clements should have a fun time directing this offense. I’ll be interested to see what new schemes and looks defensive coordinator Dom Capers throws teams’ way during the season.
One of the Packers’ biggest hurdles this year is a schedule that may be the hardest in the league. The only near-certain wins I see on their schedule are on Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns, and Week 10 against the perpetually-overrated Philadelphia Eagles. I find it hard to believe that the Detroit Lions would win both games against us this year as well. One thing’s for sure: if the Packers make the playoffs this year, they will have earned it. I’m predicting a 10-6 record this year, but it could just as easily be 6-10 if enough breaks don’t go our way. I think they will make it to the divisional round before bowing out, but could just as easily find themselves in the Super Bowl again. After all, nobody was expecting that from them in 2011.
As for the NFL at large, I like the Atlanta Falcons to come out of the NFC. I think that while young QBs Russell Wilson (Seattle) and Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco) are very talented, they will experience a slight regression this year as teams learn to defend them better. The Falcons have a proven quarterback in Matt Ryan, and are loaded with offensive weapons. If they can make some stops, there’s no reason they can’t win the NFC. However, I believe the Denver Broncos will ride Peyton Manning, DeMaryius Thomas, Von Miller, and new acquisition Wes Welker to a Super Bowl win.