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.

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