Green Bay Packers Preview: Down But Not Out

green_bay_packers_by_furbozIf you’ve been following the entirely-too-long NFL preseason this year, then you undoubtedly know about the rash of injuries that stung several top teams. The Packers were among the victims, losing top wideout Jordy Nelson for the season with an ACL tear. Though, it says something about people’s faith in their offense that some sports pundits are still picking them to win the Super Bowl. For my part, I’d say the Pack probably isn’t likely to do it, but by no means are they out of the race. Let’s take a deeper dive into the team’s prospects:

Offense

Jordy Nelson, on the play that ended his season

Nelson’s injury just goes to show how random these occurrences can be. On the play where he tore his ACL, he wasn’t hit, wasn’t interfered with, or any of that. He simply caught the ball and turned the wrong way. Even without Nelson, though, Green Bay still has one of the best offenses in the league. They were tops in the league last year in points per game, yards per play, and sixth in yards per game. They also excelled at taking care of the ball, leading the NFL with a +14 turnover differential. A lot of that has to do with quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ excellence at avoiding interceptions. He has thrown double-digit INTs in a season just twice in his seven years as the starting QB, and only has 57 in his entire career, perhaps a relief to those fans who remember the feast-or-famine days of Brett Favre. I could break down more amazing stats of his from last year (4,381 yards, 38 TDs, 112.2 passer rating), but I’ll simply state that there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to be the best quarterback in the league.

Rodgers will be complemented by a solid running game led by Eddie Lacy, who cemented his place among the best running backs in the game by following up his rookie season with a similar performance last year. While his yards and TDs went down a tick, his yards per carry went from 4.1 to 4.6. Lacy is more of a power runner rather than a super-speedy back, so he’ll be even more dangerous if he can continue to stretch the field by increasing that number. He also made progress as a receiver, hauling in 42 catches for 427 yards, a 10.2 average, and 4 TDs, all significant improvements from 2013. Green Bay also has decent depth at the position with James Starks, who some may remember from his hot streak that provided a huge lift to the Packers during their run to Super Bowl XLV. Starks chipped in 333 yards on the ground and 140 through the air. Rodgers is also underrated as a runner, and has shown the ability to scramble and get some positive yards when plays break down.

Davante Adams will need to step up in Nelson's absence

Davante Adams will need to step up in Nelson’s absence

Thankfully, the Packers were able to re-sign Randall Cobb, and he will shoulder much of the receiving load with Jordy out. Cobb’s speed gives him a lot of big-play ability, as he tied for third in the league in plays of 20+ yards, with 24. Thanks to this speed, Green Bay occasionally runs him out of the backfield, though I don’t expect them to do that as much this year. To replace Nelson, Green Bay brought back James Jones, who was last seen pulling down 59 passes for 817 yards in 2013. His stats dropped once he went to Oakland last year, a team with worse QB play. While he’ll probably never be a #1 receiver, if he can make a few good plays, he can make opponents think twice about double-teaming Cobb. Davante Adams had his moments of brilliance, such as in the divisional playoffs against Dallas last year, that make me think he could be ready for a breakout. Look for tight ends Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless to get a little more involved in the passing game. If we’re lucky, one of them will fill the role that Jermichael Finley played well for a while during Rodgers’s first few years.

The Packers’ offensive line looks much the same as last year, when it provided solid protection for Rodgers and Lacy. Continuity is always good for an OL. Tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton are the leaders of this unit, with TJ Lang, David Bahktiari, and Corey Lindsley the other stalwarts.

Defense

Clay Matthews, along with several offensive lineman, appeared in the movie Pitch Perfect 2 over the summer.

Clay Matthews, along with several offensive lineman, appeared in the movie Pitch Perfect 2 over the summer.

The nice thing about having such an explosive and dynamic offense is that if the defense can simply not suck, that’s enough to win most games. While many don’t regard the Pack’s defense as an elite unit, it certainly doesn’t suck, ranking 10th in yards per play, 15th in yards per game, and 13th in points allowed per game. Linebacker Clay Matthews is their statistical and spiritual leader. The defense played a lot better when he moved to inside linebacker, possibly because it got more favorable matchups. Julius Peppers also showed he still has something left at linebacker, with 7 sacks, but you never know when age will start catching up to him. The Packers lost AJ Hawk in the offseason, but are hoping Nate Palmer and Sam Barrington can replicate his steady-but-unspectacular play between them.

The defensive line is probably the weak link of this unit, with few proven pass rushers. BJ Raji returns from injury, and while he had a stellar 2010 season, he has been largely a nonfactor since, missing last year with an injury. If he can’t prove his worth, look for the team to move on without him next season. Green Bay had hoped Letroy Guion would build on last year’s 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks, but his suspension for the first three games of the year will leave the unproven Mike Pennel and Mike Daniels to pick up the slack.

In the secondary, corners Tramon Williams and Davon House left in the offseason. House is probably the bigger loss, as he was a young, up-and-coming talent at the position while Williams was on the downside of his career. Casey Heyward should hold down one cornerback spot well. Given another shot at starting last year, he didn’t do quite as well statistically as his rookie year in 2012, but wasn’t bad by any means. Sam Shields is prone to getting beat, but can also make some great plays when he wants to. Safety Morgan Burnett ranked a surprising ninth in the NFL in tackles last year, and he and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are like most of the Packers’ D… middle of the road. If Clinton-Dix can make a sophomore season leap, I think that could be the difference between a so-so defense and one that wins them games.

Special Teams

Packers kicker Mason Crosby

Packers kicker Mason Crosby

At kicker, Mason Crosby appears to have conquered the case of the yips that hit him a few years back, hitting 81.8% of his field goals last year. His leg strength is well-documented, as he hit a 55-yarder last year and went 4 of 7 on kicks of longer than 50 yards. He also had 41 touchbacks last year, which put him in the top half of the league. Punter Tim Masthay had a down year last year and will look to rebound, though hopefully the team won’t need him as much with their offense being as good as it is. Returners DuJuan Harris (kicks) and Micah Hyde (punts) aren’t particularly notable, but will likely be back at the same jobs this year.

Coaching/Outlook

mccarthyx-large

Head coach Mike McCarthy

One notable development this offseason was head coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to give up play-calling duties after many questioned his ability to do so following the Packers’ crushing collapse against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC title game. Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett, running back during Green Bay’s run of dominance in the late 90s, should have plenty of toys to play with. Notably, the Pack does not have a quarterbacks coach, as they believe that much in their franchise player. Dom Capers returns as defensive coordinator, and I think his schemes and playcalling are what sometimes help the D play better than its talent would suggest.

Despite the offseason losses, I still think the Packers will be a contender in the NFC. The Seahawks, their chief rival in the conference, had some losses on defense as well, but remain a well-rounded team. I can’t wait to see these two clash again in the playoffs, if that happens, and I think GB will make the Super Bowl if they get past them. I’m predicting a 12-4 season and a division title for the Pack. I’d have picked them for the Super Bowl with Nelson, but I think they’ll get at least to the NFC title game again without him. In the AFC, I like the Indianapolis Colts to finally break through and make the Super Bowl, as they have their own all-world quarterback who can make up for a shaky D. Much as it makes me sick to say it, the Seattle Seahawks are the most well-rounded team in the NFC. I’m going to go out on a slight limb here and pick the Colts to win the Super Bowl, as the best team rarely wins it all (whether or not my hatred of the Seahawks is influencing this pick is up for debate). Happy football season!

colts

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2 thoughts on “Green Bay Packers Preview: Down But Not Out

  1. Terrific comprehensive review of the Pack. I think you may be a little optimistic since Jordy Nelson has been such a force on the team. And some of the other losses (both cornerbacks) may chip away at the team’s performance in a league where every game is a game of inches.
    Much as I hate to say it, too, Seattle looks formidable. The Colts quarterback is entering his prime, but Russell Wilson is at his peak.

    • Thanks! My optimism regarding the Nelson injury lies mainly in the fact that we have a lot of other weapons (that I discuss in the piece), but also in Aaron Rodgers’s ability to make his receivers better. One need only look at how many different receivers have flourished under Rodgers (Nelson, James Jones, Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Donald Driver, etc.) to see that having possibly the best passer in the league throwing you the ball can make for better results than one might expect. Further evidence for this can be seen in the examples of Jennings and Jones, whose careers tailed off after they left GB. Jones was even released before even playing a down for the New York Giants this year, came back to GB, and promptly went off in his first game, hauling in three TDs, one of which was a circus catch in the corner of the end zone. That’s no accident. We already know Davante Adams has talent, and I think as long as Rodgers stays healthy, he’ll get 700-800 yards and a few TDs at a minimum, which when combined with Cobb’s production will keep our passing game dangerous.

      The Packers’ season could actually be a very interesting data point in the effort to disentangle how much a QB contributes to a WR’s production. FiveThirtyEight talks about that at length here: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/jordy-nelsons-injury-will-test-aaron-rodgers-and-the-value-of-wide-receivers/

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