The 2012 season for the Packers was bookended by disappointing losses to the 49ers. In Week 1 the Packers allowed 377 yards and 30 points, and in the divisional playoff round they allowed 579 yards and 45 points. The Packers struggled defensively against physical running teams like the Vikings and the aforementioned 49ers. However, the Packers’ defense did make positive strides from the 2011 to the 2012 season, and they are hoping to take another step forward in 2013. Improvements in the running game would also help the Packers. It would keep the defense off the field and open up some of those play-action rollouts that Aaron Rodgers loves. The Packers feel they’ve addressed these issues through the draft and by getting key players back from injury. Here are a few things that caught my attention as we look toward the 2013 season.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Blue Chippers
Having Rodgers and Clay Matthews (blue chippers at premium positions) locked up for the next several years can give Packers fans hope for both the present and future. Rodgers takes sacks from time to time, but is mobile, accurate, and doesn’t turn the ball over. He has an average PFF QB rating of 99.5 for the past five years, which is a full five points higher than Peyton Manning 94.38, Drew Brees 93.71, and Tom Brady 93.44. Rodgers also has an average Accuracy Percentage over that time of 78.3, which is tops in the league. Matthews had the highest pass rush grade of any 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012. His average Pass Rush Productivity grade over the past four years, of 11.3, trails only Demarcus Ware, 12.33, and Tamba Hali, 11.77. Matthews is a relentless force and plays with just as much effort against the run as he does rushing the passer.
2. Help for Clay Matthews
Since Matthews has come into the league he has been the only Packer able to consistently generate pressure on the quarterback. Erik Walden’s overall ratings of -29.4 and -27.4 the past two years have been PFF’s worst for 3-4 OLBs. Frank Zombo’s -18.6 rating in 2010 ranked third from the bottom. Nick Perry is now healthy after a wrist injury ended his rookie season in Week 6. Even including his poor “welcome to the NFL” game against San Francisco in Week 1 (-5.7 grade) he managed a -0.1 overall grade and a +1.9 pass rushing grade in 2012. Extrapolated over the whole season, those grades would have ranked him 24th overall and 7th in pass rushing among 3-4 OLB’s. The talent is there, and he doesn’t have to be a game breaker, just becoming a legitimate starter would be a massive upgrade. The Packers have also been experimenting with Mike Neal as an OLB. He has lost 20 pounds since OTA’s in an attempt to get leaner and faster. Overall, having Perry back, fellow sophomore Dezman Moses a year improved, and Neal a little quicker should give Dom Capers some flexibility at that OLB spot.
3. New Juice in the Run Game
The Packers’ backfield has had a positive combined rush grade only once in the past five years, and that was just +0.5 in 2011. Other than 2011, they haven’t had a combined rush grade higher than -5.7. Mike McCarthy has spoken during training camp of the need for his backs to get to the second level and to force more missed tackles. Dujuan Harris finished the season with a +1.6 rush grade and showed some shiftiness and explosiveness (not bad for a guy that was selling used cars halfway through the season). Throw in rookies Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin, and a healthy and spry looking James Starks, and this could be the Packers’ best chance to crank up the run game to a respectable level.
4. Casey Hayward and the Young CB’s
Casey Hayward had a sensational rookie season, but he is one part of a very talented and deep set of corners. The combined coverage grade of Hayward (+18.1), Sam Shields (+15.5), Tramon Williams (+2.8), and Davon House (+3.6) in 2012 was +40 (even though House played with a shoulder harness the entire year and Williams played with lingering numbness from his 2011 shoulder injury). Coverage wise, there isn’t a more talented group of cornerbacks in the league. Shields is in a contract year and Williams could be in line to be the next veteran cut in the offseason. This should drive up both players’ performance, for obvious reasons. If the Packers allow big plays in the passing game it will be due to lack of a pass rush, and not because of this group’s work in coverage.
5. Youth is Served
On opening day 2012 the Packers had an average age of 25.65, one of the Top 10 youngest rosters. In the offseason, the retirement of Jeff Saturday (38) and Donald Driver (38), along with the losses of Charles Woodson (36), Desmond Bishop (29), and Greg Jennings (29) have done nothing but lower this average. Ryan Pickett at 33 is now the oldest player on the roster and is the only Packer currently over the age of 30. Most of the Packers players are either in or just entering their prime years. Fans can be patient and know that the draft and develop plan by Ted Thompson is on schedule and that the young players will gradually get better as the season progresses.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. The Offensive Line
It’s never a show of confidence when you flip-flop your entire offensive line. The worry here is not Josh Sitton. He has been a Pro Bowl-caliber guard for a few years now and has shown enough consistency to make the transition. Moving Bryan Bulaga could be more concerning. In 2011, Bulaga played extremely well on the right side finishing with a +22.3 grade. He suffered a hip injury that ended his 2012 season just as he was starting to hit his stride. On the left side he will be issued new challenges and be put on an island more against top pass rushers. Marshall Newhouse has not been spectacular, but he improved his pass block grade from -15.3 in 2011 to +5.2 in 2012. Maybe the Packers would be better off leaving the tackles and just flipping the guards. Is it better to have two average or below average tackles, or to have one slightly below average and one pro bowl caliber tackle? That could be the situation the Packers face. Factor in Evan Dietrich-Smith’s first full year starting at center and mostly rookies for depth, and there are a lot of question marks on the Green Bay line. Bulaga is also rumored to have a serious knee injury sustained in the Packers most recent practice and this will only put the situation in more flux.
2. Desmond Bishop and the ILB Depth
Desmond Bishop has been one of the most underrated LB’s in the business over the past few years. He was ranked second in 2010 and sixth in 2011 in our ILB pass rushing grades. His loss will take away a little creativity from Dom Capers’ blitz packages, as AJ Hawk and Brad Jones are not strong in this area (Bishop had as many sacks in 2011 as Hawk had the past four years). Bishop was also one of the more physical and edgy players on a defense that lacked those attributes. It’s tough to lose a playmaker under the age of 30. It also hurts when that loss fills a hole for a division rival. If Bishop stays healthy the Vikings will have a Pro Bowl-caliber LB. Throw in the release of DJ Smith and the Packers are hoping for quick growth from the young Terrell Manning and Jamari Lattimore.
3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Finley
Jermichael Finley’s career has been up and down and all over the place. From his breakout in Week 7, 2009, to his season-ending injury in Week 5, 2010, he had a +15.6 overall grade. In 2011 (his return from injury) he was wildly inconsistent and almost seemed at times to be alternating between good and bad weeks of play. In 2012 it was a tale of two halves of the season. In Weeks 1 through 9 he had an overall grade of –8.0 (7 drops). From Week 10 all the way through the playoffs he earned a +6.5 (2 drops) grade. He wants to be mentioned with the Gronk’s and Witten’s as one of the best tight ends in the league. The talent is there, and this is the final year of his contract, so this is his chance to get a long-term deal. The second half of last season leaves us thinking he is trending upward, but his inconsistent history doesn’t back that up.
4. Mason Crosby
Mason Crosby wasn’t just missing the long field goals last year, he struggled from all ranges. His accuracy was 27th in the league from 30-39 yards. He was 24th in the league from 40-49 yards, and from 50+ he ranked 30th at under 23%. With the Top 15 kickers hitting over 87% of their attempts, Crosby’s 65% won’t cut it. The Packers brought in a little competition this offseason, in the form of Giorgio Tavecchio to try to push Crosby. The Packers are clearly hoping Crosby can regain his 2011 form, however. Having a clutch and accurate kicker can make all the difference in the playoffs — as the Ravens found out in the 2011 season.
5. Can Rodgers Continue to Stay Healthy and is There a Capable Backup?
Aaron Rodgers has been sacked more and more over the past three years. He was sacked 31 times in 2010, 36 times in 2011, and 51 times last year, getting sacked once every 12.53 drop-backs (second to only Phillip Rivers). Even if you take out the 10 sacks we have Rodgers responsible for (holding on to the ball too long) he still gets dropped at a Top 10 rate. The Packers are hoping to better protect their expensive long-term investment, especially with the unproven Graham Harrell waiting in the wings. Harrell has had cleanup duty in a couple of games, but no other action and remains a mystery. The Packers recently added former Titans first-rounder Vince Young to compete for the No. 2 spot. Young has been out of work since his failed stint with the Eagles and he is a whole offseason behind in terms of knowing the playbook. We will get a better gauge on both players as we begin grading preseason games this year.
What to Expect?
The Packers have found themselves stalled in the Divisional Round the last few years and, while they do have some problems on the offensive line, they usually do a pretty good job of scrapping together an average to slightly below average unit. Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin will add more pop to the run game. Drafting Datone Jones, getting back a healthy Perry, and having BJ Raji in a contract year should add more physicality and athleticism to the defense. Also, many of their younger players are in, or are just about to enter their primes and they have only one player over the age of 30. Add to that having a premier quarterback and pass rusher, and the Packers should be able to hold on to the NFC North title and contend for a Super Bowl title.