As twilight descended upon Lambeau Field, an uneasy hush fell over the sellout crowd. There was no way Packer’s faithful were re-living the nightmare of being upset by the wild card Giants again as they had in 2007. The sense of de ja vu had hung in the air like a dense fog with New York controlling the game. How did the Packers, who glided through the season 15-1, a record which was best ever for a defending champion, allow this to happen?? Uneasiness gave way to outright anguish, when Eli Manning hit Mario Manningham to balloon the Giants lead to 30-13 with 6:48 to go in the game…and it was over 37-20. One of the biggest upsets in NFL playoff history
Quarterback: Despite that playoff setback, Aaron Rodgers remains one of the league’s best. At times last season he approached playing at a level only few in history have been able to achieve. Just about every Packer passing record fell last year. Ironically two fell when Rodgers sat out the season finale against the Lions. In that game former Packer Matt Flynn upped his worth in free agency with a performance for the ages throwing for 33 of 49 for 480 yards and 6TDs. He came within 74 yards of Norm Van Brocklin’s all time record of 554 set in 1950. His 480 yards and 6TDs are new all time Packer records. Yikes!! With his leaving via free agency, the system seems to be in place for this Aaron Rodgers kid to deliver on some of his draft day promise.
Surely we jest as Rodgers threw for a team record 4,643 yards & 45 touchdowns, to just 6 interceptions while completing on 68.3% of his tosses. He could have bested Tom Brady’s record of 50 TDs had he played that final game against the Lions and he did tie Brady’s all time TD/INT ratio at 9. Yet the question remaining from last year is: “Should he have played??” After sitting out that game and the two week layoff before the top tier playoff teams get underway, he came back rusty and off. Plays he had made all season were just out of his grasp that fateful night. He was his only true enemy last year as he had a season for the ages. As for going into the 2012 season, he is in the prime of his career and this team should have a Super Bowl quality quarterback for at least 7 more years.
Offensive Backfield: After jockeying for position with Ryan Grant a season ago, running back looks like it’s going to be James Starks job to lose. Last year he and Grant had identical stats: (Grant 134 car/ 559 yards, 2TDs) (Starks 133 car / 578 yards, 1TD) Yet Grant wasn’t re-signed and the emerging Starks is 4 years younger. He needs to produce more near the goal line and in power rushing situations. Fan favorite John Kuhn made the Pro Bowl for his versatility, having scored 6 times last year (4 rushing / 2 receiving) while providing punch when blocking for Rodgers. One of the last true fullbacks in the NFL. He sees his time limited thanks to Green Bay going with more 3 and 4 receiver sets. Because of Kuhn’s presence running back is only average when it comes to grading them.
This team needs more from it’s running backs in case Rodgers is having an off game, they can carry the day. In last January’s playoff loss to the Giants, the coaching staff didn’t commit to the run when they realized Rogers was off. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/201201150gnb.htm With 14 rushes for 78 yards they could have slowed the Giants pass rush down a bit had they been utilized more. Yet the confidence to run the football wasn’t there for one reason or another. Right now, this group is supplementary to say the least.
Receivers: Funny thing that Pro Bowl voting. Greg Jennings makes it after a 67 catch season for 949 yards and 9 touchdowns. Where the odd man out was Jordy Nelson who tallied 68 receptions for 1,263 yards and 15 scores. Huh?? That has to be the only time in NFL history that a receiver that caught 15 TDs didn’t make the Pro Bowl. This is easily the best starting set of receivers in the NFL.
At 6’3 and 215 lbs, Nelson has come on the national scene and should have been in last year’s gala in Hawai’i. He gained confidence with his play during the 2010 Super Bowl run. In that game he went 9 for 140 yards and 1 TD. Had he not had three drops, one a 40 yarder, he could have broken Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl record of 215. He’s a big target and he can get deep. A 90 reception season for Nelson in 2012 is not out of the question.
In healthy competition with him is the aforementioned Mr. Jennings, fellow wideout James Jones (38 rec. 635 yds/ 7TDs) and soon to be Pro Bowl tight end Jermichael Finley (55 rec. 767 yds / 8TDs). Do you realiz e we hadn’t even brought up Donald Driver yet?? Yikes! This is the most complete set of receivers and all four can get deep and run great pass routes. This might be the best stocked position since the Greatest Show on Turf and these guys are bigger. Unlike many teams of the past where you had one possession receiver and one deep receiver, you knew how to defense them based on that premise. Here it’s pick your poison and with Rodgers throwing them the football this is easily a Super Bowl caliber group. They’re just coming into their prime as a unit.
Offensive Line: The Packers finally released longtime starter T Chad Clifton yet let’s face facts…it was a move that was overdue. Last year the Packers allowed 41 sacks (22nd in the NFL) while allowing their QBs to be hit 73 times which ranked 15th. Rodgers mobility and quick decision making kept that second stat respectable. Many times, blind side pressure forced Rodgers to move his feet to avoid contact. Clifton was past his prime and injuries caught up to him. In the 2011 draft the Packers selected T Derek Sherrod and it’s time for the succession to commence. At 6’5″ 325 lbs, he blocks out the sun and coming from an SEC school he should make the transition facing speed rushers. As a contingency, the Packers have signed four offensive tackles this offseason.
A curious free agency pick up was the signing of former Indianapolis Colt Jeff Saturday who replaced Pro Bowl center Scott Wells who departed for St Louis. Saturday is a veteran who is 7 years Wells senior wouldn’t it have been more prudent to keep the younger player?? Saturday is going into his 14th season and is walking that fine line where he could get old in a hurry. Facing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley could prove to be a handful. Right now the Packers offensive line has to be viewed as below average.
Defensive Line: The first mistake the Packers made was allowing DT/DE Cullen Jenkins to leave before last season via free agency. He was good against the run and gave an inside pass rush presence to offset the blitzing linebackers. He was missed terribly last season as Ryan Pickett didn’t record a single sack in 14 games and situational rusher Jarius Wynn could only muster 3. Green Bay moved quickly to improve this by drafting DT Jerel Worthy from Michigan St. In the 3-4 defense the ends have to be more stout against the run so Worthy will see time as a DE burrowing into the line allowing linebackers to rush from the outside. Anthony Hargrove, formerly of the Saints was also signed to give the line more juice.
At nose tackle, the Packers are set with Pro Bowl B.J. Raji who can hold ground against the run, and push the pocket as he had 3 sacks last year. However he seemed to disappear in a lot of games. From time to time you would go entire quarters without knowing he’s out there. Last year he only had 24 total tackles on the year….24?? He has to split double team blocks better and should have a bounce back season. He made the Pro Bowl on reputation last year more so than performance. Defensive line is below average until we see this team improve later in the summer.
Linebackers: The linebacker that should have gone to the Pro Bowl last year was Desmond Bishop. Overshadowed by Clay Matthews III and A.J. Hawk, Bishop turned in a year worthy of defensive player of the year candidacy. Although he missed 3 games due to injury, he recorded 121 tackles, had 5 sacks and forced 2 fumbles. He’s coming into his prime and helps bolster this defense.
Last year’s Pro Bowl LB Clay Matthews III had a down year. His sack total fell from 10 to 6 a year ago while making just 55 tackles. Most of his issues had more to do with drawing double teams as much as anything else. However he did make several plays with 3 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. AJ Hawk is still playing some solid football and garnered 86 tackles with 1.5 sacks despite missing two games. This group suffered from teams successfully running the football on them with linemen getting out onto the linebackers. Their own defensive line had a lot to do with that. With the emergence of Bishop this is a playoff caliber linebacking corps.
Secondary: This unit was the negative beneficiary of a deficient pass rush. Yes the Packers amassed 41 sacks which ranked 12th but 22 of those came from blitzing linebackers and secondary personnel. So when they got there, great, but when they didn’t receivers were running wide open. Witness Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and his 11 catch and team record 244 yard performance in the season finale. This team is forced to blitz and exposes their secondary. Yet this team has several good corners and safeties. Injuries forced S Nick Collins to retire. Yet in his absence, new safety tandem Morgan Burnett (109 tackles /3 ints / 1 sack) and Charlie Peprah (103 tackles / 5 ints) made plays on the ball and were 2nd and 3rd on the team in tackles. Just too many they were forced to make in open spaces.
Cornerback is still solid with All World Charles Woodson still playing at a high level. he recorded 75 tackles, 7 interceptions and 2 sacks in a great all around performance. Tramon Williams and Sam Shields also gathered in 4 interceptions. The secondary is playoff calibur and if the Packers aren’t forced to blitz so much are actually Super Bowl caliber.
Overall: This team is loaded and will be there in the end. However I see a fall from the record of 15-1 a year ago to one of 11-5. They have a tough division with the Chicago Bears making significant moves and the Detroit Lions growing before your eyes. Make no mistake about it when Matthew Stafford came in and threw for 520 yards and 5 touchdowns IN Lambeau Field, they showed they’re a force to be reckoned with. The Packers start their 2012 hosting the San Francisco 49ers. Their defense has to yield far less than 411 yards per game. That was one of the worst in NFL history. The Chancellor isn’t certain they did enough to fortify their lines on both sides. Everyone forgets that in 2010, Aaron Rodgers was a concussion away from sitting out the rest of the season. So offensive line issues and getting him hit can prove an issue again. The motivation from last year’s playoff loss needs to feed the monster in 2012. Can they return to the Super Bowl?? We think the NFC Championship is about the furthest they can push it in 2012
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