Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Packers 2009 Season Preview

Finally, the 2009 NFL regular season is upon us. In a few days time, on a high energy Thursday night, the NFL season will kick off with the defending champions Steelers taking on the Titans. To be honest I really don't care about the outcome of this game. The season for me starts Sunday evening, Sep 13th, when the Bears kick off against the Packers at Lambeau field. Now that's the Packer homer in me talking.

This post is more of a preview of the upcoming season for the Packers.

The Offense

Coach McCarthy's offensive philosophy is based on the West Coast Offense. It's a system that works best when you have an efficient QB at the helm, who works the ball down the field methodically without too many risks. That's exactly who the Packers have under center, Aaron Rodgers. Last season was Aaron's first full season as a starter. He had a great year statistically, but it did no't really show up in the wins column for the team, which is what ultimately counts. There were a number of reasons for that, the least critical of which was probably Aaron. The knock on him was that he was not able to complete last minute drives to score, losing 5 games by 4 points or less. But to be fair, the porous defense last year let the other team score in the final minutes forcing Aaron to try score one over that in the final seconds. It was probably a tall order for a first year QB. This year he has a better hang of the offense, working a lot even during the off-season.

Talking about the off-season, almost all the core Packers' players were present for OTAs and mini-camps. Its hard to believe but they had a attendance of 97% this off-season, which is unbelievable for a team in a league full of prima donna millionaire players. This had helped the core players to get a better hang of the playbook and they should be ready to play come crunch time.

Aaron also has a bunch of excellent receivers with the veteran Donald Driver and the young phenom Greg Jennings being a formidable 1-2 punch with more than enough support from James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Aaron also has a couple of TEs to throw to, especially Jermicheal Finley. Finley is touted by many to have a break out year in his sophomore season. He's reported to have shown enormous promise during practice and is a big target in goal line and red zone situations. Also on the offensive front, the O line seems stabilized for now. Barring any injuries, they should be able to get even better as the season goes on, with solid protection for Aaron and good run blocking for Ryan Grant and other RBs. And Grant expects himself to be better than last year. He had a 1200+ rushing season last year, but his yards per carry was significantly lesser than the year before. Unlike last year, when he missed the entire off-season / training camp and most of the pre-season due to contract issues, this year he has been a full part of the off-season and pre-season training schedule. So you can expect him to be at an elite level this season, providing a solid ground game in support of the Rodgers areal attack.

The Defense

Coming into this season, the defense had the most question marks about it. The defense as a whole had a bad season last year, which triggered the firing of pretty much the entire defensive coaching staff. After thorough and diligent groundwork, Dom Capers was brought in as the Defensive Coach to install the new 3-4 defensive scheme. This being the first year would probably have a mixture of the new 3-4 scheme and some old 4-3 formations thrown in to ease the transition. Will be interesting to see how they fare in the transition year. If the pre-season performance is any indication (which more often than not is not always the case), the defense could be very dominating with plenty of takeaways for the offing. Apart from the change in the scheme, a few notable changes are that Aaron Kampman, the best DE of the Packers will now play at LB. And Safety play becomes more important in the new scheme, meaning Nick Collins is expected to be the Troy Palamalu of the Packers defense.

The Defensive Line should be deep enough given that the base defense only requires 3 linemen. But Justin Harrell in the IR means one less available body for the position, also re-enforcing the fact that the 2007 first round pick has a long way to come off the bust list. Although, 2009 First round pick, BJ Raji started late because of his hold-out before signing, the Packers would not mind a slow time-table to get him upto speed at Nose Tackle, especially with Ryan Pickett starting at Nose Tackle. Raji can be groomed for coming years at NT. The Linebacker core is pretty deep, but lacks a true superstar status player. Kampman was great at DE, but the jury will be out to grade him at outside LB. AJ Hawk hasn't panned out as the Packers would have liked at LB, but they still say that he is a mainstay of the Defense. We can only hope they mean it, especially with guys like Brandon Chillar, Desmond Bishop and 2009 First Round Draft Pick Clay Mathews Jr. But, I guess that should be a good problem to have with so many guys knocking at the door to start at LB.

The secondary in the defense is key for the 3-4 scheme to work. Given that Capers likes to use a lot of zone blitzing schemes, where very often a DB or Safety is sent out to rush the passer. The Packers have two elite Cornerbacks in Charles Woodson and Al Harris. Typically, Woodson would cover the No.1 Receiver of the opponent, while Al Harris gets to work on the No.2 receiver. They are arguably the best CB tandem in the league. But reputation does not win you games. They must prove it week-in and week-out on the field. Will Blackmon, Tramon Willams and Jarett Bush have shown enough promise to be considered serious candidates for CB when facing 4 or 5 receiver formations. The Safety spot has Nick Collins at the helm. He could be assisted by Atari Bigby or Aaron Rouse. (The real surprise being Anthony Smith didn't make the team).

Special Teams

Although Special teams is a important piece for any good football team. I am going to undermine them just as people usually do. But I have to point out that the Place Kicker, Mason Crosby has to be more consistent than the pre-season has shown us. Some of the reserves on LB, CB and Safety are good special teams coverage guys, including 2 of the 3 fullbacks on the roster, Kuhn and Hall.

Note: Here's a look at the Packers depth chart after the final cuts.

Season Preview

Predicting anything in the NFL before the season starts is a dare, which I am not quite ready to indulge in. So I am just going to stick to a preview of the season as a whole, stopping with just analysis and letting the season play out to see who stands where in the end.

I would love to have the Packers go under the radar. But some of their 1st team dominance in pre-season has not gone unnoticed. The NFC North is going to be a tough one this year. Ironically, the traditional Black and Blue division has 4 Quarterbacks who can showcase an areal spectacle on their day. With Cutler under Center for the Bears and Favre stating for the Vikings, its going to be a race between the 3 teams for the division title. It would not surprise me if any of the 3 teams take the Division and even if all 3 make it to the playoffs.

One factor which can shape this race is something that cannot be anticipated. That is injury. A couple of injuries to key players or players at key positions can ruin the season for the entire team. I hope nothing happens in this division, so that we have a close race going down to the wire with the clinching taking place closer to the final week of the regular season than earlier. The following is the Packers' schedule for 2009:

1Sun, Sep 13Chicago 8:20 PM
2Sun, Sep 20Cincinnati 1:00 PM
3Sun, Sep 27at St. Louis 1:00 PM
4Mon, Oct 5at Minnesota 8:30 PM
6Sun, Oct 18Detroit 1:00 PM
7Sun, Oct 25at Cleveland 1:00 PM
8Sun, Nov 1Minnesota 1:00 PM
9Sun, Nov 8at Tampa Bay 1:00 PM
10Sun, Nov 15Dallas 4:15 PM
11Sun, Nov 22San Francisco 1:00 PM
12Thu, Nov 26at Detroit 12:30 PM
13Mon, Dec 7Baltimore 8:30 PM
14Sun, Dec 13at Chicago 1:00 PM
15Sun, Dec 20at Pittsburgh 1:00 PM
16Sun, Dec 27Seattle 1:00 PM
17Sun, Jan 3at Arizona 4:15 PM

As you may have noticed, it is by no means an easy schedule. With 2 games each against the Vikings and the Bears. Other potential tough ones are Dallas, Baltimore, at Pittsburgh and the regular season Finale at Arizona. The Seattle and Tampa Bay games are no gimmes either.

Here's hoping for an exciting season.......... Go Packers!!

Note: Here on, every Friday or Saturday, I will try post my predictions for the games that weekend. Hope to do that for the rest of the season.

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