NFC North Preview: Green Bay Packers
Projected 2011 Finish: 1st NFC North
Projected 2011 Record: 13 - 3
2010 Record: 10 -6
(Preface: I know I started these NFC North previews late and as I write this the Green Bay Packers are now 3 - 0. But I have to stick to the predictions I made before the season started; as if I am not writing this in week 3 of the season. This goes for all the teams I write about in this series.)
The Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers come into the 2011 season with their player personnel restocked and retooled. Last year, injuries not only plagued the Packers, but it became a theme. So much so that, I might add, it also became their mantra and rallying cry. Losing your leading rusher and star TE early on; then two of your starting LBs and your starting SS; your offensive linemen are dropping like flies; your star QB is concussed twice and misses time; even overcoming all of those injuries and making it all the way to the Super Bowl and your veteran WR and future Hall of Fame DB cannot finish the second half of the game! THE FOOTBALL GODS HATH PISSED ON PACKER NATION!
But no, the gods didn’t relieve themselves on Green Bay.
This team didn't overcome injuries last year, they absorbed them and came out of the gauntlet like a flak jacket takin’ in bullets and harnessing its energy. That is why this year, it may be very difficult taking the Lombardi Trophy away from them, let alone the NFC North title.
Weapons, weapons, weapons! How many weapons can GM Ted Thompson find for Aaron Rogers? Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb and two very solid, capable RBs. Did I mention that there are four more TEs just in case one or two or three of them go down?
In 2010, the Packers basically lined up and said, "You know we're passing, we know we're passing, we're going to pass the ball! Stop us!" And when Green Bay went on that playoff run that began in week 16 of the regular season, no one could stop them.
I cannot imagine the Packers going away from this. They will be a pass happy team again this year and it starts with the confidence Mike McCarthy has in his QB's pre-snap ability to read defenses. Rogers broke out last year, not statistically, but mentally. The offensive line, which, two seasons ago had been downright implorable has become the best in the division. This has given Rogers the confidence to hang in the pocket and just absolutely shred defenses. The running attack should be fine this year and should allow Green Bay to mix in some play action pass. This will allow Rogers yet another added dimension to their offensive attack. If you thought he was good last year, watch out! He could be even better this year.
Dom Capers 3 - 4 defense took a huge step forward last season, in only the Packers second season in that system. Experts say it takes three seasons to fully switch from a 4 - 3 to a 3 - 4. Looking at their defense last year, it looked like it took them only two as the Packers had one of the best and most exciting defenses in all of football. (Fans know their defense is exciting when your 6'2", 340 LB defensive lineman drops back into coverage and gets a pick - six in the NFC Championship Game. Then does a Hula dance for a TD celebration!)
It’s hard to separate this defense into defensive linemen, LBs and DBs because there are so many mixed-up, mashed-up packages that make this unit a unique whole operating independently, yet as one. The defensive line most certainly will miss Cullen Jenkins' ability to get to the passer. Mike Neal was supposed to fill that void, but he is already down with injury. Wynn has done a fine job stepping in and picking up a few sacks in his opportunities. Charles Woodson is basically a Safety now with the likes of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Opposing QBs need to know where he is lined up pre-snap if they are to be successful against Green Bay's defense.
When the Packers picked B.J. Raji I knew he would be a star. I did not, however, know that the LB they drafted in the same round in 2009 would also be a star. Opposing offenses are going to have to key on Raji and Clay Mathews, not just for games, but on every single down. Raji will be taking on two offensive linemen every down and Mathews will be facing a combination of: RT, RG, TE and chip blocking on a consistent basis from RBs. I feel sorry for them, mostly for Mathews, because his numbers will most certainly go down, but these are their roles now for being who they are. This will create one-on-one matchups for Ryan Pickett, Jarius Wynn, Erik Walden and the blitzing LBs and DBs. It will be interesting to see how Capers creatively utilizes these matchups as the season progresses.
Note: FS Nick Collins was lost for the season in week 2. I know I mention the Packers innate ability to absorb injuries, but this will be a tough one for them. In my opinion, Collins is one of the best safeties in the NFL. The Packers will definitely feel his loss.