After a quiet off-season, I’m finally getting a late start on my fourth season of the TriggPack blog. I didn’t manage to get my act together to post about the draft, or the OTAs, or the pre-season. But the start of the regular season is just too damn exciting not blog about it. I have so much I want to say! So let me get to it.
Every season needs to start with predictions. And, like last year, the Packers are a popular pick to win the Super Bowl among many of the leading NFL prognosticators – with good reason. Let’s start on offense.
The Packers return one of the most prolific offenses of all time. Captained by the NFL MVP, the Packers put up an average of 35 points per game last year, and all the pieces are there to put up similarly gaudy stats this year. The Packers' passing game is simply ridiculous. With the emergence of Jordy Nelson and an incredibly deep stable of receivers, the Packers will be almost impossible to stop. Randall Cobb should be exciting to watch from the slot this year, and the Packers’ decision to keep a 6th receiver in Jarrett Boykin is very intriguing. I’m waiting for them to roll out the offense’s equivalent of the defense’s “Psycho package” with 6 WRs, 1 TE and only 3 offensive linemen. Sounds crazy, but I bet it would work.
The running game should also be improved this year. I believe Cedric Benson is probably an upgrade over Ryan Grant (although I always thought Grant was a real class act). People are down on James Starks and his turf toe will keep him out a while, but he’ll hit a game this year where he shows the pop he did in the 2010 playoff run. Kuhn will provide the bulldozer when all they need is a yard, and Alex Green is showing great promise as well as a third-down back. Once all healthy, this could be a dynamic group.
Really the only question mark on the offensive side of the ball is the O-line. Bummer we lost Scotty Wells, but Jeff Saturday seems to have stepped in pretty seamlessly – as long as the 37-year old can hold up. Marshall Newhouse at left tackle is a bit of a concern, but he’s showing signs of gaining the confidence and swagger that seems to be there on the right side with Sitton and Bulaga. With only 2 other offensive linemen on the roster though, any injuries among the starters could be a real problem. Hoping Ted is paying close attention to the waiver wire to see if there are any other veteran guys they can pick up, just in case. But barring injury (always a big thing to “bar”), the offense should be outstanding.
The concern of every Packer fan is really on defense, which stank it up last year. It’s easy to dwell on their 32nd ranking in yards allowed – a startling stat for sure, but that’s partly symptomatic of the fact that every team the Packers played had to pull out every crazy play they could dream of in a mostly (15/17ths) futile attempt to keep pace with the Packer offense. To counter the kitchen sink that teams will throw at them, the Packers’ defense needs two major improvements over last year: a better pass rush and a deeper secondary.
First, the pass rush. I’m not sold yet. Nick Perry could be a perfect complement to Clay Matthews, but it’s an awful lot to expect a rookie moving from DE to OLB to make a big impact right away. Matthews didn’t really emerge till about half way through his rookie season. The defensive line also has a promising new prospect with the addition of Jerel Worthy. But, he'll have to work his way into the rotation before we can expect much from him. I would have liked to see a veteran signed to augment and help develop this bunch. But with no obvious upgrades, we'll just need to hope Perry or Worthy can be this year's Matthews or Raji.
Second, the secondary. Moving Woodson to safety is probably a good move, although that leaves Jarrett Bush or Sam Shields as the opposite corner – both of whom continue to have frequent missed tackles and disconcerting mental lapses. Shields has been the defensive equivalent of James Starks – both incredibly gifted athletes who had a set of break-out performances during the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl run, only to have their confidence shaken the following year sending them into a sophomore slump. The further additions Thompson made via the draft with Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian should help us a couple years from now, but, again, I worry it may be optimistic to really rely on these guys this season.
Bottom line: while the personnel focus is clearly, and appropriately, on the defensive side, Thompson’s “build-through-the-draft” approach may mean we have to wait a few years for these moves to pay off. If Ted had made one high-impact free-agent signing on the defensive side, a la his very uncharacteristic Jeff Saturday pick-up, it could have made a big difference both this year and in developing the younger players. Oh, well. Not his way. Thompson has always bet on youth, and his bets usually pay off. So I remain hopeful these young guys can step up.
As for the season, the Packers have a fairly favorable schedule. It’s hard to see them finishing worse than 10-6. The Seahawks, Colts, Rams, Jaguars, Cardinals, Vikings (twice) and Titans all should be easy games – that gets them to 8 wins. If they just go 50/50 against the tougher teams on their schedule (Bears and Lions twice, plus 49ers, Saints, Texans, and Giants) they’d be 12-4.
Winning the NFC North may be more difficult this year with the Lions and Bears both making improvements. But after entering as the 6th seed and winning it all in 2010 followed by a 1st seed last year which resulted in a one-and-done playoff appearance, I almost wonder if securing home field is a dis-advantage. The Packers are built for a fast track – not exactly Lambeau in January. So just getting into the dance with a healthy team feels like a good place to end the regular season. The first step happens Sunday against the 49ers – a game that I will have the pleasure of viewing in-person at Lambeau. Can’t wait! More to come on that soon.