Between now and the September 9th season kick-off, Hank Koebler, IV will be previewing all the NFL teams with new teams being released daily.
2009 final record (overall, division): 11-5, 4-2
Division finish: 2nd NFC North
Offensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 3rd, 6th, 7th, 14th
Defensive rank (Points, Total Yards, Passing Yards, Rushing Yards): 7th, 2nd, 5th, 1st
2009 Individual Statistical Leaders
Rushing: Ryan Grant, 1,253 yards, 11 TD; Aaron Rodgers, 316 yards, 5 TD
Passing: Aaron Rodgers; 4,434 yards, 30 TD, 7 INT
Receiving: Greg Jennings, 1,113 yards, 4 TD; Donald Driver, 1,061 yards, 6 TD; Jermichael Finley, 676 yards, 5 TD; James Jones, 440 yards, 5 TD; Jordy Nelson, 320 yards, 2 TD; Spencer Havner, 112 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Nick Barnett, 82 total tackles; A.J. Hawk, 67 total tackles; Charles Woodson, 66 total tackles
Sacks: Sacks: Clay Matthews, 10 sacks; Cullen Jenkins, 4.5 sacks
Interceptions: Charles Woodson, 9 INT, 3 TD; Nick Collins, 6 INT, 0 TD
2010 Season Outlook
October 17 vs Miami: The Packers will open the season against the Eagles, who will be playing their first game without Donovan McNabb on the roster in over a decade and will probably be out of sync on offense. After that point, the Packers don't play a good team until the middle of October against the Dolphins. Chad Henne and Brandon Marshall will be in sync with each other, taking pressure off of the Dolphins' tremendous run game. The Dolphins will win this game for two reasons that go hand-in-hand. The first is execution: the Dolphins perform their plays to near perfection, which helps make up for any disadvantage they may have in talent. Second, Green Bay will have been playing against inferior competition for a month and a half, so playing against a team that executes as flawlessly as the Dolphins will be a shock for them. These two factors make it hard for me to believe that the Packers will reach 6-0.
October 31 at New York Jets: Most of what I said about the Vikings' matchup against the Jets applies to this game, too: “The Jets entered the offseason intent on rebuilding, adding Santonio Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Jason Taylor to their roster that had gone to the AFC Championship game last year. This team will be tough to beat, especially if their offseason additions do mesh well with the team. This will be a hard-fought game, with both teams equally capable of airing it out or running the ball down opponents' throats.” The Jets' blitz-happy front seven are going to throw everything they've got at Aaron Rodgers, so the offensive line's performance is going to be absolutely critical in this game.
November 21 at Minnesota: Losing twice to the Vikings kept the Packers from winning the division last year, as their 11-5 record included two losses to the 12-4 Vikings. Beating the divisional champions is the most important aspect of becoming divisional champions, so the Packers have to bring the heat on defense. Also, their offensive line will be sorely tested against the best 4-3 defensive line in the league. This matchup should be a memorable one as two teams with very few weaknesses square off against each other for the second time in the season.
Key Returning Players
T.J. Lang, OT; Al Harris, CB; B.J. Raji, NT; Aaron Rodgers, QB; Ryan Grant, RB; Atari Bigby, SS; Greg Jennings, WR; Ryan Grant, RB
Key Draft Picks
Bryan Bulaga, OT; Mike Neal, DL; Morgan Burnett, SS
Key Free Agent Signings
N/A. The only free agent the Packers signed from another team as of this writing was Atlanta Falcons cornerback Charlie Peprah, who has one career start in his 4 years in the league.
Brett who? Aaron Rodgers has become yet another example of why it's typically best to let a young quarterback learn from the bench for a few years before taking over as the starter, as his play has been absolutely incredible. Although he doesn't look completely comfortable as a pure drop-back passer, his ability to keep his eyes downfield when he is on the run makes him absolutely deadly on designed rollouts and in situations where he is chased out of the pocket. Additionally, he is not afraid to run for yardage, and he had the second-most rushing touchdowns on the team in 2009. His fearlessness in running for first downs means that defenses have to honor the run even when the Packers come out of the huddle in an empty-backfield formation. The presence of a defender or two having to spy Rodgers gives the Packers a numerical advantage against the coverage, which is a large part of the reason the Packers were successful throwing from an empty backfield.
Of course, Rodgers also benefits from having such a wide array of options to throw to - Donald Driver plays well despite his age, and will be as productive as he usually is this year. Greg Jennings is a rising star in this league, and should be a major deep threat this year. Behind them, James Jones was a great number 3 option, averaging 13.8 yards per reception in 2009. Jermichael Finley is an extremely versatile tight end, and he and Donald Lee allow the Packers to be a major passing threat even out of two-tight end sets, which means that defenses have to back off of the run and defend the pass when the Packers' offense is in that type of set. This leaves even more running room for the excellent Ryan Grant, who has great vision, along with good speed and burst that makes him arguably the best running back in the NFC North.
One area where Green Bay is still in flux is among its offensive line, which allowed the most sacks in the NFL last year. While excellent in run-blocking, they were anything but in protecting Aaron Rodgers. The Packers' line did an excellent job of getting leverage and opening up holes in the running game, but they got beaten easily by opponents' pass rushes. In fact, Football Outsiders ranked the Packers' offensive line as the 8th-best run-blocking line, but they were an abysmal 30th in pass-protection. Right tackle Mark Tauscher wasn't too bad once he got inserted into the starting lineup, but he often got pushed back into the pocket by stronger pass rushers. Left guard Daryn Colledge struggled last year, and early indications suggest that he and Jason Spitz might be competing against each other for that starting spot. At left tackle, Chad Clifton was the opposite of Tauscher – he could hold his own against bull-rushers, but he was beaten to the outside by the speedier defensive ends. The tackle spots are up in the air right now, as second-year lineman T.J. Lang and this year's first-round draft pick, Bryan Bulaga, each have a chance at unseating a starter at either tackle position. Center Scott Wells and right guard Josh Sitton were great in both pass-protection and run-blocking, so those two linemen's starting jobs should be safe.
The offensive line has had its struggles in keeping Aaron Rodgers safe, but Rodgers' scrambling ability and quick decision-making has allowed the Packers' offense to thrive despite pass-protection issues. If the line can gel quickly this year and give Rodgers even more time to hurt defenses, Green Bay's offense may very well develop into the best in the league this year.
A league-leading forty takeaways were created by the Packers' defense last year, and while there's some doubt about who will be starting in the defensive backfield, all should be well for the defense that allowed the second-lowest number of yards per game last year. Entering the second year of their transition from a 4-3 to Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, the Packers' front seven appear as if they will outshine their dominant 2009 performance.
Johnny Jolly was a pretty good defensive end last year, but his future with the team is up in the air pending the outcome of the felony charges he faces for possession of 200 mg of codeine in the form of “Lean”, a drink made from Sprite, codeine, and Jolly Ranchers candy that is popular in the urban south. The sentence for Jolly's charge can range of anywhere from probation to 20 years, but even if he avoids any jail time, he is liable to be suspended for four or more games under the NFL's Substance Abuse Policy. To compensate for this, last year's starting nose tackle Ryan Pickett has been moved to defensive end, and B.J. Raji, last year's first-round pick, will be the starting nose tackle. Pickett weighs fifteen pounds more than Jolly, and Raji weighs three pounds less than Pickett, so by putting Pickett at end the Packers have bulked up their defensive line by twelve pounds, which is good on a 3-4 defensive line. Because Pickett and Raji can both occupy double-teams, and defensive end Cullen Jenkins will keep up the pressure on Raji's other side, Green Bay's linebackers will be freed up to make more plays.
This should be highly beneficial, because the linebacking corps already makes a ton of plays. Inside linebacker Nick Barnett and second-year outside 'backer Clay Matthews get the fan recognition they deserve as great players, but outside linebacker Brad Jones goes under-appreciated. As a rookie drafted in the seventh round, Jones came on nicely at the end of last season, accumulating 4 sacks in only 7 starts. While inside linebacker A.J. Hawk hasn't become the superstar he was expected to be when drafted 5th overall in the 2006 draft, he is a good player and does a steady job of getting to where the ball is. As a whole, this group of linebackers are capable blitzers, and excellent at stopping run plays.
Cornerback Charles Woodson is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, largely because of his success playing the defense's unique “Joker” position, where he was sometimes put in the role of safety, linebacker, or defensive end in the Packers' different packages. Al Harris, the Packers' other starting corner, is coming off of knee surgery, but was a great player before that. If he can't get back to the level he was at before his injury, Tramon Williams or Brandon Underwood will have to step up. Strong safety Atari Bigby is a very good player, but third-round draft pick Morgan Burnett, a major ballhawk at Georgia Tech, has been playing well enough to push him for a starting job. Nick Collins returns at free safety. He's a great fit in the Packers' defense, and has a knack for getting in position to make plays.
Coordinator Dom Capers' creativity is something that will boost the defense's ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Last year he savvily moved Woodson all over the field in certain packages, and Capers appears to be adding another wrinkle to his defense by placing Cullen Jenkins at outside linebacker in certain situations during minicamp. Capers' defensive scheming has made the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which normally takes at least two or three years, absolutely seamless.
While the pass defense might suffer a little bit if Harris isn't as good as he was before his surgery, the Packers' defense will still make life difficult for opposing offensive coordinators..
Special Teams Overview
Special teams is the Packers' only weakness, and place-kicker is the most glaring hole in the Packers' special teams game. Kicker Mason Crosby made only 75 percent of his field goal attempts in 2009, and has only made 78% of his field goal attempts in his 3-year career. Unless he drastically improves, he is unlikely to be re-signed when his contract expires at the end of the year.
Punter Jeremy Kapinos punted for the 14th-highest average punt distance in the league, with an average of 43.8 yards per punt. The coverage of his punts was less than ideal, as the Packers were the league's 25th-best in return yards allowed per punt. They were a little better in kickoff coverage, allowing the 18th-best average yards per kick return despite ranking 22nd in average kickoff distance.
Receiver Jordy Nelson had an extremely impressive average of 25.4 yards per kick return, but he wasn't so great at punt returner, averaging only 5.3 yards per return, never breaking a return longer than 14 yards. Corner Tramon Williams did a little better, and may get the nod as the Packer's primary punt returner this year. While his average of 10.4 is nearly twice as high as Nelson's, this is because a 45-yard return by Williams is a statistical outlier that skews the average, since he only returned 13 punts. Williams had a total of 135 punt return yards, so discarding the outlier would give Williams a total of 12 returns for a total of 90 yards, which results in an average of 7.5 yards per return. Statistically speaking, it seems as if the Packers would be better off letting Williams handle punt returns while Nelson focuses on returning kickoffs.
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy
McCarthy has taken a lot of heat in the press for his constant shuffling of offensive line positions, but the fact of the matter is, he realizes that the line needs to be fixed in areas, and he is doing what he can to fix it. He received just as much criticism for his handling of Brett Favre's departure, and that turned out just fine. His 59.4% winning record as a head coach is incredible, and he's more than capable of leading his team to a Lombardi trophy within the next few years.
Top 2011 Free Agents
Cullen Jenkins, DE; Donald Driver, WR; James Jones, WR
2nd NFC North
It's uncommon for a team to return all of its starters like the Vikings will this year, but it's even more uncommon for two teams in the same division to do so. However, this is exactly the case for the NFC North, where the Packers and Vikings lost a total of zero starters in free agency this offseason. This means the Packers didn't have to replace any losses, and were able to focus their entire draft on shoring up their weaknesses. Because the Vikings beat the Packers twice last year, and the teams' rosters changed so little, the Vikings have a slight edge in the divisional race. However, it would be an enormous surprise if the Packers missed the playoffs this year. - Hank Koebler, IV
Hank is a sports journalist attending the University of Missouri's school of journalism.
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