It’s funny how a single loss can skew fan perception of a season. Talk to most Packer fans, and they will lament the ineptitude of last year’s defense and obsess over the fumbles and dropped passes of their embarrassing playoff loss to the New York Giants. The rest of the world, however, still remembers the dominant juggernaut that preceded that debacle–which is why Green Bay is, yet again, the preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl.
So let’s take a look at five reasons for Packer fans to regain their confidence, and five reasons why there is some room for concern.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Aaron Rodgers
There’s not much to say here that hasn’t already been said when it comes to the NFL’s best player. The master at connecting on deep passing routes, the #1 player in our Top 101, our Offensive Player of the Year, and the 2011 Pro Football Focus MVP. Our Signature Stats back up the accolades that were piled upon Rodgers for last season. His 60.7% Deep Ball Accuracy Percentage and 80.6% Total Accuracy Percentage led the NFL, and when opponents dared to blitz him, he picked them apart, elevating his unprecedented 129.5 passer rating to an astonishing 135.9 when blitzed. Aside from bringing the NFL’s passing game to the heights of perfection (and the very depths of jaw dropping) he provides impact on the field that simply puts victories in the win column. Even with the loads of talent on this Packers team, it’s Rodgers’ presence that demands the designation of ‘Super Bowl favorites’.
2) Taking the Pressure off Matthews
While the secondary fielded much of the blame for the Packers 2011 coverage woes, in reality it was the defense’s inability to generate pressure up front that was the primary culprit. During the 2010 regular season, Green Bay graded out at +31.6 in pass rush with 260 total pressures. Last year, they plummeted to -30.0 and 235 total pressures – even with defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ increasing use of the blitz (4.23 pass rushers per snap in 2010 vs. 4.39 in 2011). Fewer defenders in coverage, coupled with less pressure up front and you’re bound to put your secondary in some tough situations.
Fortunately for the Packers, General Manager Ted Thompson appears to have given the issue some serious attention in the offseason – targeting pass rushers early in the draft and bringing in veteran free agent defensive linemen with histories of collapsing the pocket, to compete for spots. The belief is that first-round pick Nick Perry from USC should provide an immediate upgrade at OLB opposite Matthews where a ragtag group of late-round picks and undrafted free agents combined for only 50 total pressures last season.
3) Cobb Poised for Breakout
As a rookie, Randall Cobb was clearly the #5 WR in Mike McCarthy’s pecking order, with almost half as many snaps as Donald Driver and James Jones. Rogers, however, appeared to see him as his #3. When Cobb was in the game, he was more likely to get the ball (11.0 target %) than either of the two veterans (10.1%). It’s his work after the catch that should have opposing defensive coordinators sleepless, with the thought of another emerging talent in the Packers offensive arsenal. Cobb forced one missed tackle for every four of his receptions, a rate good enough for Top 3 among NFL WRs last year. Even with all the competition for targets among Packers receivers, we expect Cobb’s opportunities to increase significantly.
4) Woodson Leaves the Island
Last season, future Hall of Famer, Charles Woodson spent only 29% of his coverage snaps as a traditional cornerback position. This year the plan is to drop that percentage down to zero. Woodson allowed three of his four touchdowns when lined up at either the RCB or LCB position and earned only two INTs and one pass defensed – a stark contrast to his effectiveness as a slot cornerback where his performance (40.3 passer rating, 0 TDs, 4 INTs and 3 PD) earned him recognition as our prototypical slot corner.
When the Packers do play their base 3-4 (only 27% of the time last season) Woodson will move to safety, where he played 110 coverage snaps in 2011. By moving inside, and off the island, the Packers can protect Woodson while he maintains his aggressive, ball-hawking, often risky style of play.
5) No Drop-off on any given Saturday
It was a bit of a surprise when the Packers let center Scott Wells depart to the Rams in free agency. After all, Wells had developed into one of the league’s top centers over the past couple of years, and at age 31, appeared to be in his prime. But with Wells’ price tag topping out at $24 million over 4 years, Green Bay apparently never made a serious run at retaining his services. Instead, the Packers signed long-time Colts player, Jeff Saturday to a bargain two year $7.75 million deal. A comparison between the pair’s performance, and Wells’ slow recovery from an off-season knee scope, appear to show a smart short-term move for Green Bay. Our look at pass blocking efficiency over the last three years has Saturday as the top center in the league (Wells’ came in at 6th). Even at 37, Saturday does not appear to be in decline. Last year, with his offense collapsing around him, he was the lone stalwart on the Colts line (+14.9 Overall, +6.2 Pass Blocking and +5.1 Run Blocking) and graded out fifth among NFL centers, just behind Wells. If Saturday can squeeze out a couple more years to give the Packers time to develop his replacement, Thompson can use the saved cap space to extend the contracts of rising stars RT Bryan Bulaga and LG TJ Lang.
Five Reasons for concern
1) Left Tackle
Throughout training camp the offensive line’s first unit has been settled and constant for the first time in recent years. Green Bay are hoping this stability will help Marshall Newhouse make a jump after a very rocky first season at starter (-40.5 overall and 55 total pressures). Newhouse has enough promise and athleticism to have Packers fans hoping he can mirror the same growth shown by Bulaga last season, when he went from the the ‘bottom of the barrel’ among tackles (-24.6 overall and 53 total pressures in 2010) to ‘cream of the crop’ (+14.6 and 24 in 2011). Newhouse will need to, because depth there for Green Bay is precariously thin. With a recent concussion suffered by Newhouse and Derek Sherrod’s slow recovery from a broken leg, the Packers were left protecting Rodgers blindside with relative unknown Herb Taylor during last night’s preseason game against San Diego. The only regular season action for Taylor came in the span of three games with Kansas City back in 2008 (-2.5 and four total pressures).
2) Depth Across the Line
With depth issues already showing at left tackle for the Packers, the rest of line also looks woefully thin behind starters Lang, Saturday, Bulaga and RG Josh Sitton. The primary backup at the interior positions is C-G Evan Dietrich-Smith. Dietrich-Smith filled in at both guard positions for a six-game stretch when injuries struck late last season. His -9.1 overall grade was earned mostly on some poor run blocking and 9 total pressures yielded. The others fighting for roster spots have little or no NFL experience. The Packers did pick up a veteran this week in Reggie Wells but since playing his way out of a job with the Cardinals in 2009 (-17.8, 38 total pressures), he has bounced around the league and earned minimal snaps.
3) Down on the Corner
While Woodson’s move inside should help the defense improve, big questions remain on the outside. One starter will be Tramon Williams, who played through a serious shoulder injury last season. Practically playing one-armed, Williams still managed to hold up adequately in coverage through the first 14 weeks, but then stumbled his way into the playoffs and ended his season with a -3.5 (-1.9 in coverage) whimper against the Giants. Williams reports that the injury caused nerve damage and that he still isn’t 100%. For a player whose physicality helped carve out his breakthrough season in 2010, that kind of news is a concern.
The other corner spot is up for grabs. Sam Shields’ regression in 2011 (-7.7 overall, 10 missed tackles and 6 TDs yielded) has opened up the competition to second-year man Davon House (0 NFL defensive snaps) and rookie third-rounder Casey Hayward. Also in the mix is special-teams standout, Jarrett Bush (-4.1 overall) who is better suited for the slot and could see an increased role if Capers sticks to his plans of expanding the use of the dime package.
4) Uncertainty at ILB
Early in last night’s game against the Chargers, Desmond Bishop went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. If he is out for any length of time, the impact would be significant. While Bishop had trouble in pass coverage last year (-3.1), he was by far the team’s best run defender (7.3 and 43 Stops). He hasn’t been used extensively as a pass rusher, but over the last three years he also ranks as the NFL’s #2 ILB in pass rushing efficiency. For now, it will be AJ Hawk and second-year man DJ Smith at the inside spots. When Bishop returns, it would not be surprising to see Smith (our secret superstar), not Hawk in a starting role.
5) Tackling the Tackling Problem
One area where Head Coach McCarthy has publicly vowed improvement from his team is in the basic fundamentals of tackling. Many have lamented the raw number of missed tackles (think Lagarette Blount rumbling through a total of seven on a single play) but it’s important to put things into perspective. Given enough snaps, everybody’s going to miss a tackle or two and some positions, like safety, are more likely to be the culprit.
Our Tackling Efficiency stat (the number of attempted tackles, per missed tackle) allows us to compare a players’ tackling ability to others in the league at the position. For example, while Bishop and Hawk both had eight missed tackles in 2011, Bishop had significantly more attempts (95 vs. 68). His Tackling Efficiency of 17.6 puts him at 4th among the league’s top ILBs for. Hawk’s 11.0 has him at 23rd. Green Bay’s safeties actually tackled fairly well when compared to the rest of the league. Among the top 63 Safeties in snaps, Morgan Burnett’s 12.1 Tackling Efficiency was good for 13th and the now-released Charlie Peprah’s 10.1, good for 21st.
For the CBs – things were indeed ugly. Among the top 66 CBs in snaps, Woodson ranked 57th, Williams 61st and Shields 63rd in Tackling Efficiency. It should also be noted that when Woodson did secure a tackle, he made the most of them. Woodson’s 5.4 Run Stop % was good for a strong second among league CBs (Richard Marshall, ARZ – 6.3 %.)
What to Expect
It’s hard to imagine the Packers’ defense playing much worse than it did last year. With the influx of new talent that Thompson has brought in through the draft and free agency, improvement should be expected. Add in an offense just reaching its prime, and the Packers will again be the team to beat in the NFC this season. While they may not flirt with perfection, the road to the Super Bowl will likely lead yet again through Lambeau Field.
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