Monday, August 30, 2010

Pre-Season Prognostications, Part 2

Like most Packer fans paying attention, I have three big concerns coming into the 2010 season:

  1. Pass protection – which I’m feeling better about based on what I’ve seen in pre-season, as mentioned in my earlier post;
  2. Defensive secondary – which remains a big concern, as I’ll get to in a second; and
  3. Special teams – particularly return coverage.

Part two of my pre-seasons prognostications break down #2 and #3.


With only one pre-season game left (which won’t likely feature much of the first string anyway), it remains a little hard to really get a read on where the defense is at due to two factors.  First, several key players have been injured.  Al Harris, Clay Matthews, Cullen Jenkins and Atari Bigby have all been out.  Second, Dom Capers has been running a very plain defense, with few of the creative blitzes and schemes that characterize his system.

As a consequence, I’m doing my best to withhold judgment about the Packers defense, but what I’ve seen so far, particularly in the defensive secondary, is not giving me the warm, fuzzy feeling I have on the offensive side of the ball.  Let’s break it down.

D-line – Assuming Cullen Jenkins gets back to full speed after his calf strain, I feel pretty good about the defensive starters.  Ryan Pickett is solid if un-spectacular and B.J. Raji should make a bigger impact with a year under his belt and better health.  Losing Johnny Jolly to suspension for the season, possibly longer, hurts our depth.  That said, second-round draft pick Mike Neal has looked pretty good in the pre-season and Justin Harrell is serviceable as well.  I’d like to see them get more pass rush out of these guys, but the group should be able to hold their own.

LB – The linebacker corps should be a strength again this season, though they’ve got to get healthy.  Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Clay Matthews and Brad Jones have all missed time to injuries this year, causing some shuffling of positions.  Brandon Chillar seems to be stepping up his game, and showed some versatility playing at both the outside and inside linebacker position.  It looks like he’ll start.  His hair certainly helps him to fit into this group.  Also, his pass protection skills will make him valuable even if he’s not a starter.

Another pleasant surprise at back-up linebacker has been Frank Zombo, an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan.  He registered nine tackles against the Colts, including a big-play sack/strip against Peyton Manning.  I haven’t noticed much out of Desmond Bishop or Brady Poppinga this pre-season.  It sounds like the Packers have cooled on Poppinga, who has also been struggling with some injuries.  Overall, though, if they can get and/or stay healthy, we should be fine at linebacker.

CB – It feels a little odd to be concerned about a position in which Green Bay has the NFL Defensive MVP in Charles Woodson.  But it’s the depth behind him that has me worried.  Getting Al Harris back will be huge, but it’s uncertain if he’ll be ready for the opener and he still may end up on the PUP list which would mean he would miss the first six games of the season.  He is reportedly in “phenomenal condition” but even if he’s ready to go in week 1 you need to have concerns about a 35-year-old player returning from a major knee injury.  He just may never be the same guy.

Right now it’s Tramon Williams starting opposite Woodson, and he’s a cause of concern.  He missed most of the offseason due to a contract dispute, and that has shown in pre-season.  He got smoked multiple times in the Indianapolis game – just no match against Reggie Wayne.  He occasionally makes big plays, but he’s no where near where he needs to be in terms of consistency.

Just like last season, though, the real problem is the Packers lack of depth which starts to become apparent in the Packers nickel and dime packages (or, God forbid, if Woodson or Harris/Williams go down).  Brandon Underwood has apparently been impressive in practice, but I haven’t seen much in the games yet – except the back of his jersey while guys blow by him.  Pat Lee has also been described as “encouraging” in practice.  I’m not sure what they consider encouraging, but “sucking” is the term I’d use.  He’s been burned more times than a Michael Phelps splif.  And don’t even get me started on Jarrett Bush.  He has the look of a lost puppy running around in circles in the backfield.  So far this pre-season, among our back-up CBs it might be undrafted rookie Sam Shields who has impressed me most on the field with two interceptions.  Someone in this group needs to step up, or we’ll have a lot of shoot outs a la the Cardinals game ahead of us this year.

Safety – Nick Collins appears to be in his usual Pro-Bowl form, but, as at the CB position, the drop-off feels steep after him.  Getting Atari Bigby back from his ankle surgery would help tremendously, but like Harris, he may not be ready by week 1 and could end up on the PUP list and miss the first six games.  If that happens, it looks like we’ll be starting 3rd-round draft pick Morgan Burnett at strong safety.  He has looked plausible in the pre-season, with a nice interception in the Colts game (though I suspect he was out of position).  The depth chart is dicey with un-remarkable Charlie Peprah, Will Blackmon (who will be more useful as a returner than safety), and Derrick Martin (who sounds like he’s in McCarthy’s dog-house after getting kicked out of the Seattle game and cut get cut).

Bottom line in the defensive secondary is if Harris and Bigby don’t get healthy and back to football form soon, we could be in trouble.  Green Bay’s porous coverage and lack of pass rush was on display for everyone to see in last year’s NFC wild card game, and you can bet that every team we face this season will be digging deep in their playbook to exploit that weakness.

Special Teams

Green Bay finished with the worst special teams in the league last year.  It’s particularly difficult to get a read on special teams during the pre-season, since the units are often comprised of guys on the bubble for making the roster.  Despite two touchdowns from the special teams units in the Indianapolis game (one on a flubbed punt and another on a punt return), this is still a big area of concern.

Punt and kick-off return coverage feels like a big vulnerability, with that unit allowing at least two big returns in the Seattle game.  Mason Crosby is reliable as a kicker, but the punter situation is a mess (and impacts the kicking game since that's your likely holder).  The open competition between Chris Bryan and Tim Masthay to be the team’s punter seems more like a competition for “less worse” so far.  Shouldn’t punters be like kickers?  The 32 best in the world ought to be on someone’s roster.  When you’re bringing in guys from Australian rules football, you can smell the desperation.  What... we couldn't find a cricket player who could punt?  This chap looks like he has a pretty good swing.  Hopefully, one of these guys will be an upgrade over Kapinos, but I don’t have a good feeling about this.

The return team also feels up-in-the-air.  Will Blackmon has had glimpses of talent, for the 2 weeks of the year when he’s healthy.  Jason Chery’s punt return for a touchdown against the Colts was encouraging, until I reminded myself that it was against Indy’s 8th string special teams unit, most of whom will be working as position coaches for junior high teams this fall.  Brandon Jackson or Sam Shields could theoretically make an impact on returns, but still unproven.  Long story short, the return game needs to solidify.  Encouraging to hear McCarthy dedicating more time in practice to special teams.  We need it.

That’s my take on offense, defense, and special teams.  Next post will be predictions on the 2010 schedule.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pre-Season Prognostications

Welcome back… to TriggPack!  After a summer that included the World Cup and a vacation in France, where “football” is never Football but always futbol, I’m ready for some Football.

And what a smorgasbord that was against Indianapolis.  That was the most points scored by the Packers in a pre-season game since the infamous 75-0 rout of the Cedar Rapids Crush back in '38, but the asterisk in the record books notes that Cedar Rapids didn't actually have a football team and that 11 touchdowns were scored in a pasture against cows.  Apart from giving up a touchdown 22 seconds into the game, the only thing tempering my enthusiasm after racking up 59 points against the defending AFC Champions is a nagging sense of déjà vu.  It was the third pre-season game last season against the defending NFC Champion Cardinals that the Super Bowl hype began around the Packers.  Expectations were high coming out of that game.  As it turned out, we beat Arizona twice in games that didn’t matter, but lost to them, giving up 51 points in the process, when it did.

I don't want a repeat of that.  So I hope everyone in the Packer organization takes a nice big slice of humble pie from that smoargasbord and remembers that this is the pre-season and they need to bring the same level of execution every week of the regular season.  From all the post-game interviews, it sounds like the coaches and players do have a “confident without being cocky” mindset.  So with that forewarning, here’s my breakdown of what I’m seeing this pre-season.


QB – Obviously, Rodgers looks super sharp.  Like Ginsu knife forged by ninjas using lasers sharp.  He went 21 of 29 for 195 yards, 3 TDs and no interceptions against the Colts in just a half of football.  In the three pre-season games he’s played so far, cumulatively amounting to about one full game of play, he’s 41 of 53 for 470 yards, 6 TDs and no interceptions.  That’s crazy good.  He also seems more relaxed and loose this year, perhaps just a function of having a Pro-Bowl season under his belt and the Favre distraction further in the rear view mirror.  He's so loose, in fact, that he’s tossing the ball into a tiny net from 50+ yards just for the amusement of the practice crowd.

This is clearly Rodgers’s team now.  He’s won over the players, coaches and fans.  Even this dude sitting in section 344 row 95 at Lambeau, who -- when he sports a shirt at all -- still drags out his XXXXXL Favre jersey and hasn’t stopped whining for two years about the Packers letting #4 go, is starting to get a little quiet.  Thompson and McCarthy have to be given credit for incredible foresight and conviction to recognize the talent and poise that Rodgers possesses.  He is an elite quarterback, the face and future of the franchise.  Injury is the only thing that could prevent another Pro-Bowl year.

The other observation at the QB position this pre-season is that Matt Flynn looks pretty darn good himself.  He’s athletic, accurate with the football, and very poised and confident.  He clearly has a great grasp of the offense – leading a two-minute drive from the 1-yard line in the Seattle game that would have scored a field goal if not for a false start in the final seconds.  He’s not Rodgers, yet, but he appears to be a very serviceable back-up who plays with a similar style should the need arise.

RB/FB – Ryan Grant looks like he’ll put up another solid season, even if Jon Gruden refers to him as Dorsey Levens.  The concussion and fumble in week one aside, he has shown again why he consistently is one of the top backs in the NFL.  Brandon Jackson finally looks like he may be ready to be that 3rd-down, change-of-pace guy the Packers have needed.  He had a great 26-yard scamper followed by a 12-yard TD in the Seattle game.  He’s also been highly effective in screens, and had a great blitz pick-up against the Colts that enabled Rodgers to hit Jermichael for a TD.  Jackson even has a little nickname, B-Jax, which is cooler than the name Merrill Hodge tried to give him -- "Bran-Jo, because when he runs, it reminds me of a banjo!"

Going down the list, Kregg Lumpkin is healthy and could add some punch.  Korey Hall and John Kuhn return to provide stability and familiarity at fullback.  Apart from the confusion that must ensue at practices by having two dudes named Quinn (Porter and Johnson), the backfield looks solid.  Although the running game hasn’t been as impressive as the passing game, if the O-line can stay healthy, we’ll have plenty of run production this season.

WR – Not much to say about these guys.  They’re returning the same crew that was stellar for them last season.  Jennings remains in his elite form.  He sat tonight with a back issue, but it’s minor.  Driver appears to be as ready-to-go as ever.  And they have great depth with James Jones and Jordy Nelson, not to mention guys that might not even make the team like Brett Swain and Patrick Williams.  Hell, Jason Chery who got confused with the water boy on the depth chart, returned a punt for a touchdown.  And Rodgers will make all these guys’ stat sheets ring like slot machines.

TE – Finley (again, as I thought after the Arizona pre-season game exactly one year ago) is ridiculous.  He may emerge as the best tight end in the NFL this year.  His physical gifts are indisputable, but he’s combining that with crisp route-running, great hands, and an incredible rapport with Rodgers.  The drive in the final two minutes of the first half against the Colts was a Jermichael highlight reel.  If the ball is in the same zip code, he is going to go up and get it, then drag 8 defenders another 30 yards downfield.

What’s really scary is the depth Green Bay has at TE.  Obviously Donald Lee is a solid veteran who would be a great first-string starter if needed in that role.  Then you have Spencer Havner (who has also been lining up on defense as a linebacker, by the way) and their 5th-round draft pick Andrew Quarless, who looked like he was playing the role of Finley both in terms of size and raw athletic ability on a touchdown grab in the second half.  Forget 2 TE sets, I think the Packers should line up in a 4 TE set just to screw with the other team’s minds.

O-Line – My fingers are crossed that the horror show that was the first half of last season has truly ended.  The 31 sacks the Packers gave up in the first seven games of 2009 was an embarrassment, and arguably cost them the division.  Drafting Bryan Bulaga with the 23rd pick overall was part of the solution, and it sounds like it’s still a possibility he will beat out Daryn Colledge at the left guard spot (though I don’t expect it).  The starting five have looked very stable, with Clifton and Tauscher doing an impressive job against two of the best in the league in Mathis and Freeney tonight.

Keeping the starting line healthy will be key, but I also feel more comfortable with our depth this year.  Bulaga looks like he’ll live up to the first-round pick and should fill in well for Clifton or Colledge if necessary. T.J. Lang and Allen Barbre both got playing time last year and look serviceable.  Jason Spitz would be a very reliable back-up at Center, assuming he’s not traded.  The only reserve I’m not real comfortable with is Breno Giacomini, and not just because he has a silly name, but because he got manhandled in the Seattle game -- giving up at least one sack.

But the line itself is only part of the pass protection equation.  The Packers overall scheme seems much better suited to reduce sacks this year.  Rodgers is getting to the line early.  In addition to himself, Wells, and often Sitton and Colledge, are making reads and adjustments at the line.  The blitz pick-ups from the backs have been reliable.  And Rodgers is getting rid of the ball faster, and they are calling more screens and other short passes.  They’ve also dramatically cut down on their holding and false start penalties.  All of that should dramatically reduce their pass protection problem, which was their biggest Achilles heel on offense last year.

That’s the offensive side of the ball.  See next post for an analysis of defense and special teams.