Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Great Expectations: The Green Bay Packers 2010 season preview

Its been two whole seasons since Brett Favre has passed on the QB reigns to young Aaron Rodgers at Green Bay. While the way things went down was not pretty; starting with the tumultuous annual waffling of No.4 to his tactical move to get back into the NFC North Division with the Vikings a year later; the Packers now find themselves in a nice spot looking forward.

Favre was the iron man of football. His biggest attribute apart from his on-field exploits, was his tenacity to not miss a start in 16 years. The Packers knew every Sunday that he would be ready to pad up and play, whether it was a broken thumb or it was on off field family crisis.

The Packers should be encouraged by the growth of Rodgers in the last 2 years. Not only is he growing in front of our own eyes as a QB, he has also shown toughness and resilience, playing with injuries, and is yet to miss a start. It is safe to say that the Packers' decision to jettison Favre in favor of Rodgers has already been vindicated. In fact, it is general consensus that Rodgers is knocking on the elite clique of current day QBs. He might need a few playoff wins under his belt to clear all doubts.

So what else do these 2010 Packers have in store for us?

The so-called football gurus have made the 2010 Packers a favorite to get to the Super Bowl. While, this is an overwhelming stamp of approval for the quality of team the Packers are putting out, the players should take those predictions with a grain of salt and go about their business without getting too cocky. These Packers seem to have the makings of a offensive juggernaut, but they do have some chinks in their armor, in other areas.

Here's my preview to how good (or bad) these Packers can be. I am splitting the various parts of the team into three "automobile" categories based on how "football ready" they are: The Bugattis (Elite), The F-150s(Average) and The KIAs (Shaky, needs improvement).

The Bugattis

The Quarterback: This is probably the one position the Packers are most comfortable with. Aaron Rodgers has been racking up stats like never before. He's the first QB ever to start his career as a starter with 2 consecutive 4000+ yard seasons. Add to it his penchant for not throwing INTs and a completion percentage of over 60... that's like money in the bank. Also, he plays with a chip on his shoulders. He is one of those guys that has always had to prove his worth on the field right from his high school playing days. He not only does the hard preparation work on the field, but also spends time watching tape, correcting his mistakes (like how to handle a weak offensive line in 2009 and getting the ball out quickly to avoid piling up sacks). All these things put together is a recipe for success.

Wide Receivers: This is another area where the Packers definitely have quality and depth better than or comparable to any other team in the league. Greg Jennings and James Jones have great hands. Donald Driver who is 35 years old, is in so good shape, one could mistake him to be a 25 year old. Jordy Nelson, who is No.4 on the depth chart could be the No.2 receiver on many other teams.

Tight End: Jermicheal Finley is ready to break out into the 'best TEs in the league' conversation. His size is a mismatch for any opposing defense when he is a receiver. He along with Donald Lee are pretty good blockers too. The Packers are 4 deep at TE with Tom Crabtree and rookie Andrew Quarless making up the rest. Perfect situation for McCarthy to run the two TE sets he loves so much and the 5-receiver sets, that is a nightmare for opposing teams to defend.

The F-150s

Offensive Line: As bad as the O line was in 2009, they are entering 2010 fully healthy and with better depth. First, Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton are both are healthy to start the season. Even if one of them (or both) falls, they have decent backups in TJ Lang (2nd year) and Bryan Bulaga (rookie, first round pick). The Guard positions are set with Daryl Colledge, Josh Sitton and Jason Spitz (who is a backup for both Guards and Center). They have 10 O linemen on their roster right now. The only reason I do not put them in the higher category is that beyond the starters, we do not know if the depth can hold on if there is a spat of injuries.

Defensive Line: The new 3-4 scheme requires the 3 linemen (2 Defensive ends and Nose Tackle) to gobble up blockers, freeing up space for Line Backers or Defensive Backs to make tackles. So, the work done by these guys may not be obvious looking at the box score. The Packers have reliable DE starters in Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett. But losing Johny Jolly this off-season (to a dumb drug possession charge) was a big blow. Hopefully, Justin Harrell can stay healthy to help maintain the depth here along with rookies Mike Neal and CJ Wilson. BJ Raji hopes to have an impact season in his second year in the league at NT.

Running Backs: Most teams in the league are taking a RB by committee approach. But the Packers are sticking to the traditional one back work-horse approach. Ryan Grant is the perfect candidate for this. He may not be as flashy as other top running backs in the league. But consecutive 1200 yards seasons is nothing to sneeze at. Brandon Jackson is his backup. Shockingly, the Packers do not have any other tail backs on their roster. John Kuhn, one of the 3 full backs on the roster will be the emergency 3rd down back, if needed. The Packers have James Stark, a rookie, on IR. So he may be available after Week 6 of the season. They are dangerously thin in depth at this position.

Cornerbacks: The Packers expected to have 2 pro-bowl level CBs for this position. But with Al Harris starting the season on IR, Tramon Williams is No.2 on the depth chart. If his performance is not to the level of last year, this position could be another weak spot for the Packers. The Nickelback is expected to be Sam Shields, an undrafted rookie. Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood are right behind him on the depth chart. Although the Nickel position doe not need a starter level player, Dom Capers uses Nickel packages in about 50% of defensive downs. This makes it an important position in the scheme the Packers use.

The KIAs

Safety: The Packers are dangerously thin here. Nick Collins will do his thing at Free Safety. But with Atari Bigby on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list, Packers have to rely on 3rd round pick, rookie, Morgan Burnett for the Strong Safety duties. While Burnett has been impressive and shown promise in pre-season, its a whole different ball game when it comes to regular season duties. In the 3-4 scheme, the safeties have the duty of calling plays. This position might turn out to be the Achilles heals for the Packers defense.

Linebacker: The stars of this group are clearly OLB Clay Mathews and ILB Nick Barnett. Other than these two the Packers are going to have to rely on people like Brandon Chillar, AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop on the inside. Most precariously, they have to let Brady Poppinga and Brad Jones try produce pass rush pressure on the opposite side of Mathews. Also worrying, is the fact that almost half of the guys in this group were regulars in the injury report this off-season. Undrafted rookie Frank Zombo had shown some promise in the pre-season (remember his sack-fumble on Peyton Manning?), but is too raw to rely as a regular payer at OLB.

Special Teams: The Packers ranked near the bottom in most categories of special teams last year. The most disappointing of them all was kick/punt return. This year, the Packers hoped to have Will Blackmon back (he missed 2009 with a bad knee). But that knee problem of his flared up again and he has been waived. Jason Chery, who showed flashes of promise in the pre-season was also let go. The Packers are back to depending on Jordy Nelson and Brandon Jackson to stick to return duties. Although, there is the possibility that Will Blackmon might come back further down the season, if his recovery goes well.

With so many holes, one might wonder if people picking the Packers to go all the way are just enamored by their high flying passing offense? This is by no means a super bowl or bust year as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, it would be great to win a game or two in the playoffs. This team again is contending for the youngest team in the league for the 3rd straight year. They have a solid core to build on.

However this season may end, it sure is going to be fun watching them Packers on offense.

Go Pack Go!!

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