Green Bay Packers 2014 Season Preview

By The Sports NetworkAug. 26, 2014 at 10:57 AM
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The Green Bay Packers saw what life was like without Aaron Rodgers for an extended period of time in 2013 and the results were hardly pretty.

You might want to argue J.J. Watt or even Adrian Peterson are the best football players in the world but considering the importance of the position he plays, there should be little doubt that the Packers' signal caller is the most impactful player in all of the NFL.

Rarely does an analytical thesis get tested but The Sports Network's take on the '13 Packers did after Rodgers went down with a broken clavicle in the first quarter of a Monday night affair against the rival Chicago Bears in Week 9.

"How much is too much to ask?" The Sports Network's spin of last year's Pack began.

It was all in reference to Rodgers, who has been masking quite a few deficiencies in Titletown.

A broken collarbone sidelined the superstar for seven straight weeks as the Pack floundered before A-Rod returned with his Superman cape in tow to lead Green Bay to a season-ending victory over that same Chicago team, a triumph which secured the team's third straight division title despite a pedestrian 8-7-1 record in the downtrodden NFC North.

Division crowns and one-and-done playoff appearances might be fool's gold, however, when you consider the problems on a deeply-flawed roster started to become a lot more noticeable with Rodgers on the sidelines.

Particular needs for the Packers include boosting what has been a dismal front seven over the past few seasons, save for Clay Matthews, while also addressing the safety position, tight end and the offensive line.

Green Bay will remain a legitimate, albeit long-shot Super Bowl contender with Rodgers under center. Without him, though, it looks more like a bunch who might challenge for a top-five pick in the draft.

The Pack was 5-2 and likely on the way to 6-2 when the Bears' Shea McClellin sent Rodgers to the MASH unit, a play which literally slammed the brakes on the club's 2013 campaign.

Things completely fell apart with Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn at the helm as Mike McCarthy's team failed to win again until Week 14 when they barely squeaked by an injury-riddled Falcons club that had already tapped out of what was a dismal season for them.

No one in the NFC North could take advantage of Rodgers' absence, however, and the All-Pro put on his white hat and road to the rescue in Week 17, engineering a brilliant last-minute comeback as Green Bay edged the Bears.

Understand the All-Pro wasn't 100 percent, though, and probably wouldn't have returned if Green Bay was out of the playoff picture. Of course he still nearly engineered an upset over the heavily-favored 49ers in the playoffs until ultimately coming up short.

This time around, it's more of the same in Green Bay -- A-Rod or bust.

2013 RECORD: 8-7-1 (1st, NFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2013, lost to San Francisco 49ers in wild-card round.

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Mike McCarthy (82-45-1 in eights seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Tom Clements (ninth season with Packers, third as OC)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dom Capers (sixth season with Packers)

KEY ADDITIONS: DE Julius Peppers (from Bears), DT Letroy Guion (from Vikings), S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (first round, Alabama), WR Davante Adams (second round, Fresno State)

KEY DEPARTURES: WR James Jones (to Raiders), OT Marshall Newhouse, C Evan Dietrich-Smith (to Buccaneers), DE/DT C.J. Wilson, S M.D. Jennings (to Bears).

QB: Rodgers is the rare pocket passer who excels when extending plays with his feet and throwing on the run. In his last healthy season Rodgers led the league in passer rating (108.0) for the second consecutive year, becoming the first QB to do so since Peyton Manning led the NFL in the category in three straight seasons (2004-06). Meanwhile, his combined passer rating of 114.9 from 2011-12 was the best two-season passer rating in NFL history. Rodgers was "slumping" a bit before going down last season and finished the campaign with a sterling 104.9 rating.

I suppose if you want to poke any holes in him as a player you might point to his leadership skills. Rodgers is an aloof, cocky guy and Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are among those who have taken shots at him in the past.

The backup situation is shaky. Neither Tolzien or Flynn impressed when given the chance last year but Flynn won out because he understands the system better. Tolzien has better physical skills, however, and if McCarthy feels he understands the system a little bit better, it's conceivable he's designated No. 2 on game day at some point this season.


RB: Running back and the offensive line are the two areas that defined GM Ted Thompson to his detractors. Eddie Lacy, however, proved Green Bay isn't as close-minded as once thought when it comes to the running game.

The Packers' lack of a run game over the years was almost a perfect storm-type situation. Obviously Rodgers' skills, along with the rule changes that have made throwing the ball far easier in today's NFL, trend toward the passing game in general. Add in the fact that Thompson never really addressed the position until 2013 and you had the cocktail to explain Green Bay's woes on the ground.

Lacy was the answer, though.

The former Alabama star was dominant at times as a rookie, gaining 1,178 yards on the ground and adding 35 receptions and 11 touchdowns. He is a powerful one-cut, downhill runner who developed very quickly into a chain-mover and gave McCarthy a much more balanced offense. In fact, Lacy was the team's offensive star when Rodgers was on the sidelines. He still needs to learn to pass protect better but Lacy is the best back Green Bay has had in years.

"He doesn't waste any steps," the Packers coach said when describing Lacy's style.

James Starks has proven to be a solid backup for short stints but tends to get exposed with extended playing time. He's a upright power runner with good vision but his style is susceptible to taking hits.

Fullback John Kuhn is obviously a crowd favorite and a decent outlet receiver who is above average as a lead-isolation blocker.


WR: It's the chicken and egg scenario when discussing the Packers' receivers. Are they really that good or does Rodgers elevate their play?

It's a little from column A and a lot from column B but in the end who cares? Production is the name of the game and Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have consistently produced, while Jarrett Boykin really came on a year ago.

Nelson led the Packers in all three receiving categories last season with a career-high 85 receptions for a career-best 1,314 yards and eight TDs. He is a big-play machine (leading the NFL with 19 catches of 25 yards-or-more) with great size, tremendous hands, excellent route-running ability and a tremendous rapport with Rodgers. The only negative is that he has a tendency to get nicked up at times.

Cobb, on the other hand, is best utilized from the slot and is far less polished than Nelson but just as explosive at times.

Opportunity is knocking behind the proven veterans because James Jones has moved on to Oakland. So far Boykin is holding off talented rookie Davante Adams, a big, physical receiver who has seemed lost at times during the preseason.


TE: The career-threatening injury to Jermichael Finley hit Green Bay hard. Finley was always regarded as a bit of an underachiever, prone to drops in big situations but when focused he was a matchup nightmare in the mold of Jimmy Graham.

Former undrafted free agent Brandon Bostick, who was a wide receiver and basketball player at Newberry College, had been getting most of the first-team reps until a lower leg injury slowed him up. Bostick may develop into a Julius Thomas-like success story but he's certainly not going to be any help as a blocker.

That's where rookie third-round pick Richard Rodgers comes in. A king-sized tight end Rodgers only has pedestrian speed and even shakier short-area quickness so it's hard to imagine him developing into anything more than a Y in-line guy.

If neither young player is ready that will open the door for inconsistent veteran Andrew Quarless.


OL: Last year it was Bryan Bulaga, this season it's Don Barclay and J.C. Tretter.

The Packers have already lost Barclay for the year to a torn ACL but he was considered the weak link of the line and a healthy Bulaga, who missed all of 2013 with the same injury, should be an upgrade.

Bulaga was in the midst of a move to left tackle last year before his injury in August and the team was so happy with his replacement, then-rookie David Bakhtiari, that the plan is to keep Bakhtiari protecting Rodgers' blind slide and slide Bulaga into his more natural right tackle position. The problem is they both have right tackle skill sets and lack the athleticism to standout in space.

Meanwhile the big question mark is center where new starter Tretter has looked bad at times in the preseason and was then lost for "multiple" weeks after suffering what has been described as a "significant" knee injury against the Raiders.

Rodgers lobbied to re-sign former pivot Evan Dietrich-Smith but Thompson let him walk to Tampa Bay, leaving the unproven Tretter as the leader of the line. Now that will likely fall to fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley, who in truth may not be much of a drop off.

Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang are certainly the strength of the unit with Sitton among the NFC's best interior lineman.

With Barclay and Tretter lost to injury, veteran tackle Derek Sherrod is the only sure thing depth wise.


DL: Green Bay's front really hasn't impressed for three years now and it has already taken a major hit. Nose tackle B.J. Raji suffered a torn biceps in the Packers' Week 3 preseason win over Oakland and will miss the entire season.

Raji has always lacked consistency and disappeared for stretches but he's been a difference-maker in the past. The move back to nose tackle after a few years playing out of position as a five-technique in the 3-4 was going to help and his loss is magnified by the Pack's lack of depth at the position.

The only true nose left is undrafted college free agent Mike Pennel, meaning ex-Vikings underachiever Letroy Guion or undersized third-round pick Khyri Thornton may be forced into action, making Green Bay susceptible to getting gashed right up the middle.

On the outside the Packers need last year's first-round pick, Datone Jones, to really upgrade his play while Mike Daniels, a third-year defensive end from Iowa, has some imposing quickness but consistency is an issue. Daniels finished second on the team in sacks last season behind Matthews with 6 1/2.

Josh Boyd, a space eater who with plus athletic ability, could also figure in.


LB: The Packers have never been about free agency but they raised the white flag a bit this offseason by bringing in veteran edge player Julius Peppers. The move was a testament to just how bad Green Bay's front seven -- with the notable exception of Matthews -- has been at times over the past few seasons.

Peppers has been selected to eight Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL's All- Decade team for the 2000s but expecting a player in his mid-30s who has always played with his hand in the dirt to excel in space is the very definition of pounding the square peg in the round hole.

Matthews is by far the Packers best defensive player and one of the better pass rushers in all of football but has struggled with injuries over the past few seasons. He is one-dimensional at times, though, a straight-line player who often looks lost when trying to key and diagnose.

The rest of the group is far more ho-hum. Inside 'backers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones don't stand out and edge player Nick Perry has a long way to go, although he has the natural size and skill along with the pedigree to be really solid complement to Matthews.


DB: Sam Shields is the Packers' top corner but those who put him in the lockdown category are grasping at straws. His running mate, Tramon Williams, is 31 and has never been the most physical player in the world, making him susceptible to the Calvin Johnson- and Brandon Marshall-types in the NFC North. That said, Williams has always been a big play guy.

Nickel back Casey Hayward showed a lot of playmaking potential as a rookie in 2012, becoming the first Packer freshman with four INTs over a three-game span since Tom Flynn in 1984. He hasn't been much since, though, and must clean up some significant technique problems.

Rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the No. 21 overall pick, is a natural center fielder and will eventually fit in nicely opposite Morgan Burnett as Green Bay's last line of defense. Micah Hyde, who has nowhere near the physical skills of Clinton-Dix, has been holding the rookie off thus far.


SPECIAL TEAMS: The steady trio of punter Tim Masthay, kicker Mason Crosby and long snapper Brett Goode should remain intact for a fifth straight season. Only Kansas City's group of kicker Ryan Succop, punter Dustin Colquitt and long snapper Thomas Gafford has been together that long and consistency usually equals excellence on special teams.

Crosby bounced back form his worst season to connect on 33-of-37 field goals, a career-high 89.2 percentage which ranked second in franchise history.

Masthay, meanwhile, posted a gross average of 44.6 yards last season, the fourth-best season in team history, and a franchise record net average of 39.0 yards last season.

The return game is led by Hyde but McCarthy could also turn to Cobb in a key spot for a big punt return.


COACHING: McCarthy has led Green Bay to the playoffs in six of his eight seasons as head coach, joining Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren as the only coaches to guide the Packers to a Super Bowl win with a victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.

He joined former Pittsburgh-mentor Bill Cowher as the only Super Bowl winning coaches to lead their respective teams to three road wins as the No. 6 seed in the postseason en route to a world title but then faltered over the past three years with his club technically in a better position.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has the big reputation but his unit has been sliding for years. He has looked like a coach behind the innovation curve in recent seasons but Capers will get one more chance to prove the talent has been the issue in Green Bay, not the scheme.

Offensive chief Tom Clements is there to implement McCarthy's style and game plans.


THE SKINNY: Everyone knows football is a bottom line business.

Losing really magnifies the smallest of blemishes, but winning can also hide all kinds of issues and that's what has been going on with the Packers. In fact when you're on the right side of the scoreboard -- more often than not -- questions go unasked, especially in a media market like Green Bay, where there is little competition for the back page of the tabloids.

Thompson's failure to address long-term problems with the Packers' roster has already knocked Green Bay from the ranks of serious Super Bowl contenders down to potential playoff club. As evidenced last year, the wrong hit on Rodgers would send then spiraling even further.

Nothing has changed this time around. Green Bay is the favorite in the NFC North and at least a second-tier Super Bowl thought with its superstar taking all the snaps.

Without him, the best advice you can give to fans in the Badger State is to avert the eyes.


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