Are the Green Bay Packers really armed and ready to grab the NFL throne from the New Orleans Saints in 2010?
According to the preseason forecast in the Pro Football Weekly/Yahoo! Sports Preview 2010 magazine (on sale in June) — as well as a growing number of well-respected national pigskin pundits — the answer is a resounding yes. Twenty-one of the team's preferred 22 starters (everybody but converted LOLB Aaron Kampman, who signed with Jacksonville) are returning from a squad that really got its act together in the second half of the '09 campaign with seven victories in the last eight regular-season games while averaging a whopping 30.8 points.
The way I see it, if Aaron Rodgers, who appears on the cusp of elite status among NFL quarterbacks, had not overthrown a wide-open Greg Jennings on the first play in overtime of the Packers' wild-and-crazy wild-card loss to the Cardinals, it's quite possible Green Bay could have stolen the Saints' Super Bowl thunder a few months back.
With mid-May minicamps in full bloom — the first open session of the Packers' OTAs that began Monday is on tap Wednesday — there isn't a team in the league looking as solid on both sides of the ball as Green Bay right now.
The offense reached history-making heights in '09, becoming the first ever to feature a 4,000-yard passer (Rodgers), a 1,200-yard rusher (Ryan Grant) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Jennings and Donald Driver).
The defense, in the first season under the direction of the venerable Dom Capers, improved from 26th against the run to the best in the league and registered a lights-out plus-24 turnover differential (nine better than any other team) with a league-leading 30 interceptions.
It's also worth noting an excellent 2009 draft crop that reaped immediate dividends, with all but one of GM Ted Thompson's eight picks (fifth-round OT Jamon Meredith) making some kind of an impact. Thanks to the likes of OLBs Clay Matthews and Brad Jones, NT-DE B.J. Raji and versatile OL T.J. Lang, among others, there does not appear to be an immediate need for any of this year's draft picks to make his presence felt in a dramatic fashion.
All that said, there are more than a few potentially very dangerous pitfalls on the road to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
What follows are five pitfalls, in particular, that Packers boosters far and wide would be foolish to ignore:
1) THE SPECIAL TEAMS — The first year under special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum was far from special. In fact, it was downright despicable on a number of levels.
Suffice it to say the Packers rue the day they decided to cut the cord with P Jon Ryan a week before the 2008 opener. While Ryan moved on to Seattle and immediately became one of the Seahawks' few reliable performers, the Packers' punting has been awful for the most part since then.
It was far from a shock when the team decided not to tender incumbent P Jeremy Kapinos, which set the stage this offseason for a battle between two totally unproven performers — left-footed street free agent Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan, a 28-year-old native of Australia who had never played American football.
PK Mason Crosby, meanwhile, offset his undeniably impressive leg strength with serious accuracy problems, particularly from the right hash mark. Crosby finished the season missing five of his last 15 field-goal attempts — including a 54-yarder that would have beaten Arizona in the playoffs — and had one truly forgettable stretch in which he missed a field goal in four straight games.
When you add the special-team units' propensity for foolish penalties and a very uncertain kick-return situation, with Will Blackmon coming off a nasty knee injury, the end result is a serious problem that could very easily end Green Bay's 2010 season prematurely.
2) THE OFFENSIVE LINE — After giving up a whopping 37 sacks in the first eight games, the line improved substantially the second half of the season when veteran Mark Tauscher returned to his customary position at right tackle. The team re-signed Tauscher and starting OLT Chad Clifton, but at the ages of 33 and 34, respectively, as of June, and with injuries having taken their toll on both of them in recent times, the odds are not good that each player will remain in one piece.
That could be especially troubling in the case of Clifton, who missed four games in '09 and was forced out of four others, including the Cardinals' playoff game, due to ankle and hamstring injuries. The line noticeably struggled without Clifton, and it remains to be seen whether first-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga, whose short arms became a huge topic in advance of the draft, will be able to fill the bill if pressed into emergency starting duty.
Any optimism at left guard, meanwhile, is guarded, to say the least, with neither Daryn Colledge, who led the line in ill-timed breakdowns, nor Jason Spitz, who could be held out of the start of offseason practices due to back surgery last season, offering much to get excited about.
Did we mention that Lang, who has great potential, is expected to miss offseason practices while continuing to recover from surgery on his left wrist after it was injured during practice in December?
Those are a lot of red flags, friends.
3) THE PASS DEFENSE — Although the Packers ranked a very respectable fifth in passing yards allowed, the pass defense's mind-boggling meltdowns in losses to the Vikings (twice), the Steelers and the Cardinals in the playoffs remain major concerns.
In those particular games, former Packers legend Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner registered a combined 15-0 TD-interception ratio and completed just over 70 percent of their passes. The consensus seems to be that shaky coverage from the team's linebackers was at the root of the problem, although the season-ending knee injury suffered in Week 11 by veteran starting RCB Al Harris certainly didn't help matters.
With Harris, Blackmon and Pat Lee all coming off serious injuries, and Tramon Williams still not having signed his tender at this writing, the outlook on the corners is a bit scary. Same goes for strong safety, where incumbent Atari Bigby has been banged up a significant chunk of the last two seasons and could get a run for his money from 2010 third-round draft pick Morgan Burnett. The good news is that Pro Bowlers Charles Woodson and Nick Collins are as good as it gets at left corner and free safety, respectively. However ...
4) THE PASS RUSH — Aside from Matthews, a potential superstar in the making who set a team rookie record with 10 sacks, the Packers' didn't pose much of a pass-rush threat. Capers apparently believes there will be a natural increase in pass-rush effectiveness in the second year of his system.
A healthier Raji, who was hindered by a high ankle sprain in the first half of his rookie campaign, also should help.
In any event, it's imperative that another defender or two besides Matthews provide consistent pressure.
5) THE VIKINGS — I've saved the biggest potential problem — which shouldn't surprise anybody — for last. With Favre at the helm, Minnesota clearly had Green Bay's number last season in victories in the Packers' fourth and seventh games. In those two losses, the line surrendered 14 sacks, and in one of them, Rodgers suffered a foot injury that quietly bothered him the remainder of the season. It's definitely worth highlighting the seventh game (at Lambeau in prime time) and the 10th game (at Minnesota) on the Pack's 2010 schedule.
Obviously, whether or not Favre is under center for Minnesota will be a huge factor. I can't pretend to know what he will actually end up doing, but while the prospect of somebody who is an honest-to-God grandfather still playing at the pro level seems totally off the wall to me, my gut tells me that Brett will indeed be back and that he will be extremely stoked in the two games against his old team.
I have to think the Packers must win at least one of those matchups to be on a fast track to Super success.
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