2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Dan Arkush
With no team winning back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did so in 2003-04, and 10 different NFC teams winning conference titles the past 10 years, the odds could be stacked against the Packers hoisting a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy in Lucas Oil Stadium next February.
But after being forced to overcome a major injury epidemic — 15 players were placed on injured reserve, including seven Week One starters — and a sixth seed in the playoffs, there wouldn't appear to be any pressure too great for a team that scored six must-win victories on the road to SB XLV. All six wins came after the Packers appeared to be on the brink of playoff elimination following losses in Weeks 14 and 15.
A productive, freewheeling offense led by Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers and a deep receiving corps figures to be bolstered by the return of RB Ryan Grant and TE Jermichael Finley, who entered the 2010 campaign as the unit's designated centerpiece, from season-ending injuries.
Improved health also should benefit a resilient 3-4 defense that ranked second in points allowed and fifth in yards per game in its second season under the direction of the cerebral Dom Capers.
One area in which the Packers must improve is special teams. While P Tim Masthay finished strong and Jarrett Bush developed into a demon gunner, there were too many costly coverage breakdowns over the course of the season and not nearly enough difference-making kick returns.
A big key to the offense's success is the ability of every receiver, including TE Jermichael Finley, to line up anywhere on the field. The most notable of four changes in the offensive coaching staff is Edgar Bennett's shift from RB coach to WR coach to replace the well-regarded Jimmy Robinson, who left for Dallas.
Quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers established himself as one of the league's elite signalcallers. Utilizing his arm, legs and brain with maximum effectiveness, Rodgers overcame an uneven start and a pair of concussions to post an NFC-best 101.2 passer rating before excelling in the postseason. A hardworking perfectionist who can make every throw in the book, Rodgers has an uncanny knack for buying time and escaping pressure. Rodgers possesses pinpoint accuracy and flawless mechanics and sells his play fakes extremely well. Backup Matt Flynn proved his worth in a near upset of the Patriots late last season, displaying excellent composure, grit and mobility.
Running backs: Entering his contract year, 2010 starting RB Ryan Grant's future in Green Bay appears to be on increasingly shaky ground. Grant is a tough, downhill runner who is expected to be fully recovered from the season-ending ankle injury he suffered in the 2010 season opener. He is adept at holding on to the ball, has excellent vision and goes all out all the time. But with second-year RB James Starks, who gained 78.8 yards per game in last year's playoffs as the team's No. 1 back, coming on strong, Grant might be deemed expendable. After sitting out the first 11 games of his rookie campaign with a pulled hamstring, the 6-foot-2 Starks displayed every-down ability with an upright style reminiscent of Eric Dickerson. Starks consistently picked up yardage after contact and did not have a single fumble, penalty or dropped pass. Third-rounder Alex Green is a good-sized, light-footed back and a good receiver who is in the mix to replace the departed Brandon Jackson as the third-down back. Versatile fan favorite John Kuhn, who signed a new contract that makes him one of the league's higher-paid fullbacks, scored six TDs in 2010 (four rushing and two receiving). Kuhn provides nonstop hustle, making the most of his limited ability at both running back and fullback. FB Quinn Johnson is a crushing blocker who became much more of a factor clearing paths down the stretch last season.
Receivers: Greg Jennings became a major force to be reckoned with after TE Jermichael Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week Five, registering five 100-yard games and nine of his 12 TDs in the final 11 games. True to form, the crafty Jennings seldom tipped his hand, often reaching for catches at the last second, and he never shied away from contact. Aside from an eye-popping 61-yard TD catch-and-run against the 49ers, the 36-year-old Donald Driver really started to show his age. Driver figures to get a serious run for his money from Jordy Nelson for the No. 2 WR role. Big and physical, Nelson came on strong in the playoffs, culminating his 2010 season with a 140-yard, one-TD performance in the Super Bowl. But Nelson must do a better job of holding on to passes before being considered more than just an above-average receiver. James Jones, who signed a new three-year deal, finished second among receivers with five TDs last season and at times made some brilliant catches. But he dropped what would have been sure TD passes in five different games (counting the playoffs) and continued his disturbing knack for losing concentration at the most inopportune times. Second-round pick Randall Cobb, a former QB who could add a "Wildcat" wrinkle, has a great feel for the game and plays bigger than his size. Finley is a big, fast, sure-handed tight end who provides matchup problems for opposing defenses. But major knee injuries the past two seasons are cause for concern. Finley is backed up by the athletic Andrew Quarless, who displayed flashes as a rookie but needs to spend considerable time in the weight room; hardworking blocking specialist Tom Crabtree; and rookies D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor.
Offensive linemen: After looking like he was on his last legs in mid-September, OLT Chad Clifton, who turned 35 in June, just kept on improving, earning a Pro Bowl berth while consistently rising to the occasion against top-grade competition. Bryan Bulaga proved worthy of his first-round billing in his rookie campaign, more than holding his own as the starting right tackle after veteran Mark Tauscher was lost four games into the season. Smart, steady and even-keeled, Bulaga looks like a fixture at either right or left tackle for a long time to come. C Scott Wells is a tough, smart anchor in the middle with great leverage and balance. Wells makes excellent snap adjustments and is almost always in good position. ORG Josh Sitton is cut from the same cloth as Wells. Sitton prides himself on never giving in to anybody and being fundamentally sound, and he has not missed a snap in two seasons. At the OLG spot vacated by Daryn Colledge, who signed with the Cardinals, it looks like the new starter will be T.J. Lang. The versatile third-year pro, who is bigger and stronger than Colledge, provides decent punch and plenty of tenacity. Lang, a former fourth-round draft pick, was slowed by a wrist injury last season. First-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, who opened training camp on the first team at left guard, shapes up as the heir apparent to Clifton at left tackle but has had his share of struggles in the early going. Second-year pros Nick McDonald and Marshall Newhouse and rookies Caleb Schlauderaff and Ray Dominguez add depth. McDonald, who has a nice blend of size and smarts, opened camp as the backup at both center and right guard. Newhouse, who is smart and has good footwork, opened camp as the backup left tackle.
Diversity and unpredictability remain the staples in an exceptionally well-coached unit. The Packers were seriously considering a potentially significant shift on the defensive line early in camp, with Ryan Pickett moving from left end to nose tackle and B.J. Raji moving from nose tackle to right end to replace the departed Cullen Jenkins.
Defensive linemen: After being hampered by a high ankle sprain as a rookie in 2009, converted DE B.J. Raji just kept getting better as the starting nose tackle. Displaying impressive stamina and rare athleticism and mobility for his size, Raji was a quality run stuffer and a steadily improving pass rusher, finishing third on the team with 6½ sacks. Quick and explosive, Raji has a really strong lower body. Like Raji, veteran Ryan Pickett switched positions, moving from nose tackle to left end. Pickett ended up justifying the hefty contract he signed last spring, overcoming a high ankle sprain that kept him out for the better part of four games to solidify the Packers' front down the stretch. Pickett did a solid job holding his ground and always being around the ball, in addition to excelling as an unselfish team leader. Cullen Jenkins, who signed with the Eagles, is likely to be replaced by second-year pro Mike Neal. Daily team observers believe Neal — who was lost for the season a week after an excellent effort against the Redskins, when he tore his rotator cuff in practice — has what it takes to replace Jenkins as a quality inside pass rusher and make the same kind of progress as Raji did in his second season. Neal has enormous upper-body strength and a great work ethic, but there are concerns about his ability to stay healthy. Massive 360-pound veteran Howard Green did a solid job at right end in the base defense after being picked up on waivers late last October. Green effectively stayed in his gaps, enabling the team's linebackers to make more plays. C.J. Wilson, who has good mobility and shows no fear; undersized but athletic Jarius Wynn; and rookie Lawrence Guy provide decent depth.
Linebackers: LOLB Clay Matthews has become a bona fide superstar after only two seasons. Overcoming early hamstring issues and a sore shin until mid-December, Matthews registered 17 sacks (counting the playoffs) and had to be accounted for on every play, as Dom Capers did a great job of moving him around. Matthews has superior flexibility and athleticism and plays every snap like he's fighting to keep a roster spot, maintaining the underdog mentality he brought to USC as a walk-on. Former first-round ILB A.J. Hawk was released in March, only to be re-signed to a new five-year deal less than 24 hours later. Hawk led the team in tackles and tied for the league lead in interceptions by a linebacker with three. The unflappable Hawk did an excellent job calling the defensive signals in place of the injured Nick Barnett and grew as a leader in the locker room. Fellow ILB Desmond Bishop went from wanting to be traded before the season started to signing a four-year contract extension after blossoming as a starter when Barnett went down. Considered the most instinctive defender in the front seven, Bishop is an excellent tackler who loves to make the big hit. It appears the athletic Erik Walden has a leg up on Frank Zombo and Brad Jones as the starter at right outside linebacker. Walden was a great pickup off the waiver wire in 2010 whose 12-tackle, three-sack performance in the regular-season finale against the Bears propelled the Packers into the playoffs. Zombo registered four sacks and proved to be tough and resourceful in place of Jones, last year's starter before going on injured reserve in late October (shoulder). But Zombo fractured his shoulder blade this preseason and is expected to be out 4-6 weeks. Jones could move inside to offer more depth along with Robert Francois. Rookies D.J. Smith and Ricky Elmore will also contribute.
Defensive backs: After becoming more vulnerable on the outside, the Packers wisely decided to use veteran LCB Charles Woodson primarily in the slot and as an extra linebacker — roles in which he excelled. Woodson's interception total plummeted from nine to two, but he registered a career-best five forced fumbles and seven tackles for loss, which tied for the team lead. RCB Tramon Williams was given a well-deserved contract extension for playing as well, if not better, than any corner in the league. Displaying amazing consistency, Williams allowed only one TD pass and was called for only one penalty the entire season while making a team-leading six interceptions and 23 passes defensed. Fleet-footed FS Nick Collins, who had a huge 37-yard interception for a TD in the Super Bowl, was named to his third Pro Bowl in a row. A starter in all but three games in his six seasons, Collins said he was in the best shape of his life entering training camp. Collins is a sure tackler but occasionally takes bad angles. Morgan Burnett earned the starting SS job in training camp as a rookie before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in Week Four. Burnett, who has impressive range but needs to improve his run support, figures to be challenged by the physical Charlie Peprah, who did a solid but unspectacular job replacing Burnett much of the season. Nickel corner Sam Shields, who can run like a deer, made great progress as the season wore on. Jarrett Bush, Patrick Lee, Josh Gordy and fourth-round pick Davon House add depth on the corners.
PK Mason Crosby has an undeniably strong leg, as evidenced by his NFC-best 56-yard field goal in last year's season opener. But he has below-average accuracy and only one game-winning kick in his career. P Tim Masthay rebounded from a shaky start, compiling a 37.6-yard net average that tied for the best in team history. Second-rounder Randall Cobb is expected to compete for both kick-return jobs. Fellow rookie Alex Green, James Starks, Sam Shields and Pat Lee are also in the mix. LS Brett Goode has yet to deliver a bad snap in his three seasons on the job.
With Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and a stellar secondary highlighting a high-quality core, the Packers once again shape up as heavyweight playoff contenders.