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2011 Season Preview: Green Bay Packers
Jeff Risdon. 22nd August, 2011 - 6:48 pm

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By The Numbers: Green Bay Packers

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2010 Record: 10-6

Point Differential: +148
Turnover Margin: +10
Sack Differential: +9

Offense:
2010 Ranks
Rushing: 24th
Passing: 5th
3rd Down: 8th
Scoring: 10th

QB: Aaron Rodgers enters 2011 as the defending Super Bowl MVP and he is just approaching his peak. Rodgers finished 3rd in the league in QB rating and second in yards per attempt, raising his completion percentage a full point. Rodgers also showed more prolific use of his legs, rushing for over 350 yards and taking 19 fewer sacks than in 2009. Entering his fourth season as the full-time starter, Rodgers has become an elite field general that has total command both in the huddle and as the plays unfold. His specialty is the quick throw to his hot read out of the spread offense, though the Packers use multiple tight ends and power formations more than most teams and Rodgers is equally effective in those situations. What allowed him to step forward in 2010 was going to shorter drops, allowing him to use his arm strength to get the ball out quicker and beat the defensive traffic. Few QBs have the ability of Rodgers to put just the right velocity on the ball on every throw.

Still, there are some warts. Rodgers goes through periodic spells of wildness and listlessness, and the offense completely bogs down around him when he enters these inexplicable funks (witness the NFC title game or earlier Redskins and Jets contests). His running style and tendency to hold the ball while looking for downfield options leaves Rodgers vulnerable to injury. There is also the possibility that now that he has climbed the mountain, the drive that has made Rodgers so formidable wanes a bit. Nobody really expects that, but stranger things have happened.

Matt Flynn impressed in his spot duty a year ago, showing pluck and the ability to keep the offense moving. He lacks arm strength and size but has a great feel for the offense and throws a very catchable ball. Flynn is entering a contract season and could be angling for a starting job elsewhere in 2012, which tends to produce very positive results for backup QBs. If something should happen to Rodgers, Flynn is eminently capable of holding down the fort for a handful of weeks. Third-string Graham Harrell is similar to Flynn but not as gutsy or experienced. The team likes his developmental prospects.

RB: This has been the weak point of the offense, though the offensive line shares at least some of the blame for the lack of oomph from the running game. Ryan Grant missed 2010 with a bum knee, and the team missed his ability to turn a 4-yard gain into a 20-yard scamper. A return to full health should enable Grant to reassume the starting spot, but do not expect any more 1200 yard seasons from the Notre Dame product.

Some of that stems from the playoff emergence of James Starks. The rookie from Buffalo stepped up by demonstrating crushing power and surprisingly shifty feet for a bigger back. After netting just 101 yards over the regular season, Starks put up 315 yards in the four playoff games and announced his presence with authority in the Wild Card win over the Eagles. His high-legged style is a great fit for when the Packers use their 22 personnel (2 TE, FB, RB). The Packers would be wise to limit his presence, however; Starks fell in the draft due to numerous injuries, and his pass protection skills are no small reason why he spent most of the season chained to the bench.

Third round pick Alex Green has the potential to run away with the lead RB gig. An accomplished receiver who is used to lining up in the shotgun spread formation, Green is a decisive slasher with very good acceleration and long speed. If he can show more toughness and better ball control (he is a fumbler), Green can have a very long and productive career in Green Bay. His presence made their leading rusher from last season, Brandon Jackson, expendable.

John Kuhn emerged as the lead fullback and a pretty effective short-yardage runner. Kuhn fits well with what Mike McCarthy asks of his fullbacks and could equal his 100 touches of a year ago. Massive banger Quinn Johnson is the #2 fullback, and all indications are the team will be one of the few that keeps two active fullbacks on the roster.

WR/TE: One of the most positive developments of the Super Bowl season was the emergence of Greg Jennings as a legit #1 wideout. Jennings added more variety to his route trees, improving his footwork and concentration on the intermediate routes. He was already a very good deep threat. Even though he has caught more balls before, Jennings was clearly a more confident target. Expect at least 80 receptions for at least 1250 yards and at least 8 touchdowns if you snag him for your fantasy team.

The rise of Jennings comes at the expense of Donald Driver, whose productivity fell off considerably in 2010. Father time is catching up with the tough-as-nails Driver, who is 36 and has been a threat with the Packers since 1999. Driver still has some value as a possession receiver across the middle, but his days of getting behind the defense and catching more than 50 balls are done.

How the rest of the passing offense gets distributed is a very good question. Jordy Nelson had his moments and is a good size/speed target that can create after the catch. That is assuming he makes the catch, which has been an ongoing problem. James Jones finished with 50 receptions a year ago and has good field-stretching ability, but he too has been hindered with untimely drops and underwhelming blocking. Nelson is better in the slot than Jones, who somewhat surprisingly came back as a free agent.

Then there are the wild cards. Rookie Randall Cobb is the water-bug slot dynamo the team has lacked, a cat-quick bundle of energy. He is a converted quarterback and will likely see more action as a return specialist, but the Packers coaches are very excited with the wrinkles he can add to the spread offense. Cobb could even wind up as a 3rd down back in the Reggie Bush mold. The other is tight end Jermichael Finley, who was showing signs of being a special talent when he was felled with a torn meniscus in the first Lions game last year. Finley led the team in receptions and targets at the time of his injury, and he has the size and speed to make him a nightmare matchup for defenses. But the offense carried on without him and it will be interesting to see how he is reintegrated back into the passing attack. There simply is not enough room on the field for Jennings, Jones, Nelson, Cobb, Driver, and Finley, certainly not for an offense that throws to its running backs so often. Beware fantasy expectations for any Packers receiver except Jennings.

There is strong depth at tight end should Finley not regain his mojo. Andrew Quarless impressed as a rookie and proved a better blocker as well. Rookie DJ Williams won the Mackey Award as the top collegiate tight end and he fits nicely as a H-back/motion tight end. He has good speed and a great catching radius, plus an inherent ability to get open.

OL: This beleaguered unit was inconsistent but played better when the games really mattered, particularly LT Chad Clifton and RG Josh Sitton. Clifton was talked out of retirement and his steadying presence on the blind side of Rodgers was a godsend, even though he struggles to move his feet to handle edge speed. He plays with an aggressive tone that permeates amongst his line mates, and Clifton knows all the little tricks in the book to get away with holds, clutches, and grabs. He remains a sound run blocker as well. 2011 will almost certainly be his last season, and the Packers have a lot riding on his ability to squeeze out one more productive year.

This development has not caught the Packers off guard. In fact, they have spent first round picks each of the last two drafts on offensive tackles. Bryan Bulaga came last year and immediately took over on the right side. He held his own run blocking, but in pass protection he very much looked like a rookie in over his head. Edge speed game him major trouble, and it showed in his lack of confidence and hesitation coming off the snap. He did play better in the playoffs, but 11 sacks allowed and 9 penalties (not including 5 that were declined--all holds on 3rd down) are illustrative of a tackle that is more of a project than anticipated. Bulaga should improve in his second season as he adjusts to the speed of the game, but I still maintain my pre-draft opinion that he would make a much better NFL guard than tackle.

This year the first rounder is Derek Sherrod, a long-limbed Mississippi State product with good feet. He will eventually take over for Clifton and he is better suited than Bulaga to play on the left side. The Packers hope to let him get his feet wet at left guard, and he has the agility to handle the zone blocking requirements. Sherrod must get stronger and more physical as he matures. That makes for an intriguing fit at left guard, where he is battling with TJ Lang to take over for the departed Daryn Colledge. Lang is a hybrid guard/tackle that has never put it all together, but he is the most physically menacing linemen the Packers have.

Right guard is not a problem. Josh Sitton took a strong leap forward last season and has emerged as one of the better all-around guards in the league. He greatly improved his range in run blocking and got consistently lower pad level. Those are attributes that are not going to go away, meaning he could get even better in 2011 and beyond. This is a contract season for Sitton, and I suspect he will earn top-3 guard money with his play this year. Pitching another shutout in the sack department is probably unlikely, however. Sitton pairs nicely with dependable Scott Wells at center. Wells moves nicely and is almost freakishly reliable with his snaps.

Depth up front is not a big concern. Lang figures to be the 6th lineman, with Sherrod moving out to tackle if needed. Young Marshall Newhouse has intriguing potential as a mauling blocker inside, should he be fully recovered from a back injury that wiped out his rookie season. Evan Dietrich-Smith and Caleb Schlauderhoff are fighting with Nick McDonald and promising undrafted rookie Ray Dominguez for the final spots. Dominguez is one to watch as a potential long-range starter.

Defense:
2010 Ranks
Rushing: 18th
Passing: 5th
3rd Down: 9th
Scoring: 2nd

DL: B.J. Raji is everything the Packers dreamed he would become when they made him the #9 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Blessed with the size of a massive nose tackle but the agility of a man weighing 50 pounds less than his 340, Raji can (and does) line up all over the line in search of the most advantageous matchup. Ostensibly Raji is a nose tackle, but his versatility and ability to collapse the pocket fits more with a 3-technique tackle. Fellow beefster Ryan Pickett has similar versatility but not the pass rushing acumen. Pickett is on the wrong side of 30 and struggles when left on the field too long, but his savvy and dependability are definite assets. This allows for Green Bay to play two tackles that weigh nearly 700 pounds combined, a tremendous asset in clogging the interior run. The flexibility and versatility they provide is critical to what Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers does with the players behind them.

It is the third defensive lineman that is the question. Cullen Jenkins left town, taking his seven sacks and street fighting mentality with him. Mike Neal gets the primary chance to take over. The second-year player has strong potential but missed almost all his rookie season with a torn rotator cuff. That is an injury that takes a real toll on a lineman, and it remains to be seen how much he has to offer this year. Former Jet Howard Green has the bulk of Pickett and Raji but nowhere near their talent level; he is a run obstacle/blocker occupier. CJ Wilson is the lithest of the linemen but at this point appears to be a pass rushing specialist and completely redundant with Jarius Wynn. Last season this was the one unit where the depth really paid off, but an injury to Pickett or especially Raji would seem catastrophic this year. Some of that blame falls on convicted felon Johnny Jolly, some falls on confirmed flop Justin Harrell, neither of whom will be back.

LB: It all starts with Clay Matthews, a legit Defensive MVP candidate and an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses. Matthews bagged 13.5 sacks but an even more impressive 23 QB hurries, of which a Packers stat geek tells me forced 4 INTs. He has the ability to line up in a variety of places and stances, and his instincts for locating the proper rushing lane are incredible. Teams tried to run right at him to slow him down, and stuffing the run is not his forte, but he is a perfectly capable tackler with decent range against the run.

Starting across from Matthews is, well, umm...Frank Zombo is the most promising option after a rookie season where he notched 4 sacks and held up well against the run in limited duty. Zombo lacks great speed and has trouble disengaging from blockers, but he positions himself well and finishes his tackles. Brad Jones held the starting job until he got hurt, but he failed to register a sack and recorded just two QB pressures in six games. Lack of production like that is doom for Dom Capers and his blitzing schemes, and Jones has fought numerous injuries in his short career. Erik Walden is hoping to parlay a monster finale against Chicago into an expanded role. He is fairly straight-linish and like Zombo struggles to avoid and get off blocks. Ideally all three candidates would be backups, but one will have to start. The best guess is Zombo unless someone else wows Capers & Co. Rookie Ricky Elmore has some potential but seems destined for the practice squad. Undrafted rookie Jamari Lattimore could also wind up sticking, though he is an ILB/OLB tweener that needs to carve a role on special teams first and foremost. If there is an Achilles heel to this defense, it is finding a complementary pass rusher to Matthews.

The inside backers are primarily responsible for run defense and coverage on tight ends and backs. The Packers have the right men for that job in AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop. Both racked up over 100 tackles, both broke up at least 8 passes, and both have enough threat as blitzers to keep the offense honest. Hawk was the subject of an interesting off-season contract move, where the team released him for making too much money, then re-signed him to an even less cap-friendly contract. He is coming off his best season. Bishop is more active at attacking the line of scrimmage, and he has a nice chemistry playing directly behind Raji. It is imperative that both starters stay healthy, because the depth at ILB is almost embarrassingly thin. 6th rounder DJ Smith and a cadre of undrafted free agents from the past couple of seasons are waging camp warfare to earn those spots, with the decision largely based on special teams impact.

Secondary: In Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, the Packers have a pair of physical cover men that fit perfectly with how Dom Capers likes to use his corners. Williams took a big step forward in 2010, showing more consistency and a better understanding of how to steer the receivers and how to use his size better. His six interceptions were not a surprise, as he always had nice ball skills; it is his play before the ball is in the air that has really taken off.

Woodson will wind up in Canton someday for his years of stellar play. He has lost a step in coverage, but continues to be one of the best playmakers in the league. Woodson is a master of film study, knowing the routes as well as the receivers running them and using his strength to disrupt timing and precision. He remains a force against the run as well, which lends some credence to the thought of eventually moving him to safety. For now though, Charles Woodson is still a Pro Bowl corner. At some point Father Time is going to catch up to him. I thought it would happen last year, and I could not have been more wrong. If this is the year, Green Bay will be worse for it but not in the dire straits some might think.

Sam Shields was a revelation as an undrafted rookie nickel back. He only had one season of corner play at Miami after being an underwhelming wideout, but parlayed his great speed and agility into being a surprisingly effective corner. That comes with a qualification, however; the Packers did a fantastic job scheming him out of trouble with all sorts of blitzes, linebackers shading under him, and limiting his assignments. Expect the training wheels to come off in 2011, and that could lead to some growing pains. One area where he does not need the training wheels is in run support, where Shields displayed a willingness to hit and good technique for a guy that has less than 25 games playing defense in his life.

Green Bay is fine at safety as long as the starting duo stays healthy and plays to expectations. Morgan Burnett takes over at strong safety with just four games on NFL experience after a rookie season wiped out by injury. He has good size and had nice closing burst in college, and the team speaks highly of his ability to quickly decipher plays. Nick Collins will provide a steadying veteran presence at free safety, and he handles most of the coverage responsibilities. He handles them quite well, reading eyes and jumping routes very adeptly. Collins seldom gives up the big play, and he is a solid hitter when closing on the receiver.

If injuries hit the top five in the secondary, the Packers are going to need more of the bountiful fortune that they struck upon during their rash of injuries last year. Charlie Peprah is a competent #3 safety that is best used in limited doses. Jarrett Bush is the dime corner, but he could be usurped by rookie Davon House and has been a better special teams asset thus far. After those guys, you might as well look at the waiver wire as the rest of the cast needs practice squad development. I like the rangy House as the candidate this year to be the surprise stud, though, and he could make this depth a lot more solid.

Special Teams: Mason Crosby and Tim Mashtay are back as the specialists, giving the Packers some continuity they have lacked here for some time. Crosby has a powerful leg but cannot quite seem to crack the 80% standard on field goals. Mashtay was a nice surprise a year ago, showing consistency with his leg strength and ability to angle kicks.

The return units were a focus of offseason attention. Randall Cobb will immediately take over as the primary punt and kick returner, duties that fell to Tramon Williams, Jarrett Bush, and a handful of other largely incapable candidates last season. Cobb has the open field qualities to thrive, but he will need the guys up front (read: backup wideouts and linebackers) to provide better blocking. Improving the return units can really provide a boost here, as the Packers faced the lowest percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs in the league last year, meaning more opportunities for Cobb to ply his trade.

Forecast: This is a tougher forecast than you might expect for a Super Bowl champion that lost very little in the offseason. In fact, with all the returning players from IR last year, this team should be significantly better in the regular season. Should be. But funny things happen to Super Bowl champs, and getting all those players back in the mix and sorting out roles is a complex problem that must be handled carefully by Mike McCarthy and his staff. Also remember that this team snuck into the playoffs with lots of help, and had fans calling for the head of McCarthy as late as the beginning of December. There is too much talent, and Aaron Rodgers is simply too good at QB, for this team to fall far, if at all. If all the moving parts gear together, this team could have a run at 14 or 15 wins in the regular season. But the goal is nothing less than a repeat championship, and that is a very ominous task. Green Bay comfortably wins the NFC North with a 12-4 record but must prove they can handle the seismic shift from hungry hunter to king of the jungle come playoff time. The potential is certainly there for a repeat, but it will not be easy.

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com