2010 Green Bay Packers Season Preview: Shootouts Galore
It was a good-news, bad-news sort of 2009 for the Packers. On the positive side, Green Bay finished 11-5 and took some serious steps toward Super Bowl contention after a 6-10 record in 2008. But on the flip side, the Packers lost twice to NFC North champion Minnesota -- which looks like the favorite again in 2009 -- and showed some extreme defensive issues, especially in a 51-45 overtime loss to Arizona in the NFC wild-card round.
Can Green Bay continue to take steps forward or are there too many issues still present?
Offense: For the Packers, there are few question marks on this side of the ball. What few exist are somewhat significant.
Among the non-questions are Aaron Rodgers and the passing attack. The Packers figure to field one of the league's most explosive offenses this season, thanks to Rodgers, talented receivers and coach Mike McCarthy's ability to push the envelope, exploit matchups and usually run a step ahead of opponents.
Rodgers got close to 4,500 yards passing last year, posted an impressive touchdown/interception ratio of 30-7, and was deadly accurate, especially on third down, where he hit two-thirds of his passes. He also showed his toughness, absorbing 51 sacks -- some of which were his fault for holding the ball too long -- and making every start to give him a streak of 32 in a row since taking over for Brett Favre.
Rodgers has wideouts Greg Jennings and Donald Driver back. Jennings is probably the more dangerous receiver at this point, but Driver can still get open downfield, and he's a great target on third down because of his route-running, experience and reliable hands. Secondary receivers James Jones and Jordy Nelson are talented, but neither has really stepped out. Instead, tight end Jermichael Finley looks like the next star in the passing game. McCarthy can line him up in so many places -- the matchup problems he presents make him a future Pro Bowler.
Ryan Grant ran for more than 1,000 yards again, but only averaged 4.4 yards per carry and was largely void of big plays during the season. The line had its problems, due in large part to the lineup shuffling necessitated by injury. Tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are older, but still pretty strong, and left guard Daryn Colledge has plenty of talent. If the Packers can run-block a bit more effectively while cutting down on the number of times Rodgers is hurried and/or hit, the sky's the limit for this offense. Heat Index: 9
Defense: There are major issues on this side of the ball. The Packers were torched by a number of teams last year, most notably Minnesota (twice), Pittsburgh and Arizona. Simply put, that can't happen again if this team is to become a real Super Bowl contender.
Up front, Dom Capers' 3-4 is anchored by ends Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett, along with young nose tackle B.J. Raji. The Packers don't have a ton of quality depth here, thanks to Johnny Jolly's season-long suspension and former first-round pick Justin Harrell's injury problems. Rookie Mike Neal should be a regular in the rotation. The Packers are pretty solid at linebacker, where Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Clay Matthews and young Brad Jones should start in Week 1. Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar are versatile players who provide depth. Jones came on as a rookie last year, while Matthews was one of the top defensive rookies in the NFL. Hawk has never fully realized his potential, but he is a solid player.
The front seven was rock-solid against the run virtually all season. The secondary was the source of many of the Packers' problems last year. It doesn't figure to be a lot better this time around.
Al Harris' knee injury could leave him out at the start of the season, and while there were serious questions about his ability to return at full strength, he is still probably a better option than youngsters Tramon Williams and Brandon Underwood, who will both see significant time if Harris misses the opener. Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson returns and should virtually lock down one side of the field, while also providing Capers with a great option for blitzes.
Rookie Morgan Burnett should start for the Packers at safety in the absence of Atari Bigby, while Pro Bowler Nick Collins is a great playmaker who still gets caught out of position far too often. Consistency is a key with this group, and they don't seem fully capable of playing with any. Heat Index: 6
Special Teams: A bit jittery at times last season, kicker Mason Crosby had no competition in training camp, signifying confidence from the coaches and front office. He missed some key kicks last year, including against Pittsburgh in a one-point loss. Crosby has to improve his accuracy, or he might not be long for the Packers. The punting game was a mess last year, and the team held an open competition for the job in camp.
The Packers are okay in coverage, but are still looking for a playmaker in the return game. The special teams as a whole were pretty bad in 2009, and if things don't get better, the Packers are likely to suffer. Heat Index: 6
Coaching: McCarthy gets high marks for his ability to exploit matchups. He's also not afraid to take risks, as he's shown he will go for it on some fourth downs where other coaches might consider kicking instead. His onside kick in the playoff loss to Arizona was also saluted as a bit of an unconventional call. Capers' defense improved significantly from the previous regime, but the Packers still have to clean some things up in the secondary before they are a serious championship contender. Heat Index: 8
Intangibles: McCarthy had as a priority bringing home-field advantage back to legendary Lambeau Field. Outside of losses to the Bengals and Vikings, the Packers were perfect there a year ago. They are 20-8 there -- counting playoffs -- since McCarthy's second year in 2007. There aren't many gimmes on the schedule, but McCarthy has the kind of offense he wants, and Capers is trusted for his teaching ability and game-planning acumen, so no game is out of reach for this team. Heat Index: 7
Total Heat Index: 36/50: The Packers are likely a contender in the NFC, but they can't be considered the favorite. McCarthy and Rodgers are a formidable pair, but neither has won a playoff game in the NFL without Favre around. Not only that, the defense looks far behind the offense, and the team probably can't win more than one playoff game without improvement from that unit.
While Favre and the Vikings are dealing with some adversity, it's all systems go for the Packers in Week 1. If that could be guaranteed to be the case all season, the Packers would be the prohibitive division favorite. Instead, they'll have to settle for second fiddle to their rivals once again.