In 2010 the Packers overcame a huge number of injuries to make an amazing end of the season run concluding with a Super Bowl win. It appeared the sky was the limit for 2011. The offense was stacked and the defense was a Top 5 statistical unit with a good combination of veterans and younger players on the rise.
2011 did bring unprecedented success in the regular season as the Packers accumulated a record of 15-1. Along the way the offense scored the second most points ever by a team for a 16-game season. The defense, however, was not as strong and gave up yardage in alarming chunks.
Points wise they were in the middle of the pack but they were certainly not what was expected based on 2010 results. In the playoffs the team stumbled and lost in the divisional round to a team they had beaten in the regular season proving once again how difficult it is to repeat as champion in a league as closely competed as the NFL.
The question now is what changes need to be made for another successful run in 2012. Are changes in personnel needed or is it the schemes and strategies that need adjustment? The following are some of the areas that may require addressing in the offseason.
1) Rushing offense. It is hard to find fault with much of anything for an offense that scored points like the Packers did, but they did struggle to run the ball this season. The Packers averaged 97.4 rushing yards per game this season which was the sixth worst in the league.
The Packers said they planned to split the work between James Starks and Ryan Grant this year and they certainly kept to this plan. For the season, Grant had one more carry then Starks and 19 fewer yards. But for the leading rusher for a playoff team to have only 578 yards certainly leaves room for improvement.
The Packers also had the seventh fewest attempts rushing in the league. Even when they had leads or when the rushing offense was working they did not seem to stick with it for many plays per game. It leaves the question of where the problem lies—in the backs, the line or in the commitment to the running game.
Conventional wisdom appears to point the blame at the backs. Ryan Grant is without a contract for next season and debate is raging on his value to the team. James Starks could not stay healthy but his first full season playing seems to show he is a good back for picking up the blitz but an average runner. But neither back was ever given the chance to run 20 carries or more in a game to show what they could really do if they got into a lather.
Given the Packers preference for building the team internally rather than through free agent acquisitions it seems unlikely they will add a big time running back into the lineup for next season. A threat at the halfback position could really make this team an offense that is nearly impossible to game plan but the more likely scenario is that they continue to try and find a draft choice around the third round that they can build into the starter.
2) Offensive Line. In addition to the running woes the Packers gave up 41 sacks in 2011. This was following the 47 sacks they gave up last year. The line was in a constant state of flux as injuries and players playing through injuries make overall performance hard to judge.
Josh Sitton missed two games, Bryan Bulaga missed four, Chad Clifton missed 10, and Derek Sherrod broke a bone so severely he had a rod implanted in his leg.
The majority of the line appears set with Scott Wells, Sitton, T.J. Lang and Bulaga all entrenched and under contract. Good depth exists with Evan Dietrich-Smith and Marshall Newhouse but they are not players you want to depend on as starters. The question is at left tackle. Clifton is scheduled to make $5.75 million next year in salary and bonuses but is there any other option to play tackle? Sherrod will need extensive rehab and no one else on the current roster is ready for that key position.
Once again with the Packers unlikely to make a lot of big splashes in free agency do they go for yet another offensive lineman with a high draft pick or do they work with what they already have?
3) Tight End. It has been discussed and re-discussed about what do the Packers want to do with Jermichael Finley. I will short form the discussion here. Finley had 767 yards and eight touchdowns this year but also had many visible drops.
Combined with his propensity to talk it makes him a lightning rod of should they or should they not make him a franchise player and resign him to a big contract. I feel that having a difference maker at tight end is a necessity in the modern NFL so they should attempt to sign him but like everything it is a matter of at what price.
4) Defensive line. As we turn to the defense we could just as likely ask what the heck happened to the whole lot of them. In 2010 the Packers were one of the stingier units in the league and in several games when the offense sputtered the defense stonewalled the other team and were the primary reason for the win. In 2011 the best the defense could manage was some timely turnovers and some red zone stops.
The plus was that the defense was tied for the league lead with 38 forced turnovers (while only giving up 14 turnovers on offense). For the season they gave up 359 points which was 19th in the league. In yards it was even worse as the Packers were dead last in the NFL giving up over 411 yards per game.
The Packers sack total dropped from 47 sacks in 2010 to 29 in 2011. To the fan it often appeared that the opposing quarterback was in more danger of getting a sunburn then of getting hit by the Packers defense when he dropped back to pass. B.J. Raji made the Pro Bowl this year though he often seemed like the invisible man compared to the havoc he created in the opposing backfields late last year.
Ryan Pickett led the linemen in tackles even with missing two games. But Pickett had no quarterback pressures, hurries or sacks all season lending new definition to the term run specialist. No other defensive lineman is even worth mentioning.
It is certainly a top need to get one, two or even three lineman to add to this roster and form a unit that can pressure from the front four without the need for constant, risky blitzes.
5) Linebackers. On the inside the Packers parted ways with Nick Barnett and gave the reins to Desmond Bishop and A. J. Hawk. Bishop was a mixed bag with 142 tackles and five sacks but was a total liability in pass coverage where passes aimed at the man he was covering were completed nearly 78 percent of the time. And in a league were passing is taking over this is not a good trend. Hawk played well off his 2010 level and only started to come on late in the season after suffering some injuries.
On the outside Clay Matthews had only six sacks but was fourth in the league in total knockdowns and hurries. He played through some injuries and seemed to make strides in his non-rush game where he made three interceptions and defended the run better. The other outside linebacker was a total waste and it is unclear if any of the players on the roster at that position are even worth keeping.
Hawk is due a much bigger salary this season but the Packers appear to be committed to him now. The depth inside is nonexistent so Bishop and Hawk seem to be the only options short of a complete overhaul. The outside position opposite of Matthews is in total flux and in need of serious upgrade.
The Packers gambled this year that someone would step up at that position and no one came even close. Once again the Packers tendency is to work with the players they drafted but a free agent addition here could be well rewarded.
6) Secondary. After the 2010 season the Packers appeared to have a secondary that was deep and set at every position. After the 2011 season the questions are endless.
Charles Woodson was still a solid contributor as he was able to get pressure on the quarterback at times and he was tied for the league lead in takeaways. He has shown some signs of slowing down and rumors continue that he may move inside to safety.
After a 2010 where he looked like a shutdown corner Tramon Williams was anything but that in 2011. The Packers can only hope the shoulder injury he suffered in the opener was the reason for his dramatic downturn.
The same is true for Sam Shields. At the end of 2010 he was a rising star and was that third cover man every team needs in modern football. At the end of 2011 he was on the bench half the time and when on the field he looked like he looked like he was allergic to tackling.
At safety it was a big blow when Nick Collins was lost with a neck injury. His ability to play next year or ever is a big concern for this team. After a good start, Morgan Burnett was never the same after inuring his hand and Charlie Peprah was unable to follow up his good play in 2010 and was a liability in 2011.
The Packers need Collins to return, Burnett to progress, and Williams to return to his 2010 form or significant changes/additions are needed in the secondary.
7) Coaching. Overall, the Packers may have been hurt by their record. They were winning every game so the need to cover their flaws was never apparent. They appeared unwilling to make changes in game plan even when it was obvious that the level of pressure and the secondary was a shadow of the 2010 unit.
On offense they threw the ball so effectively—almost at will it seemed—that they never needed to work on or commit to the running game. The coaching staff would talk about the need to run the ball effectively and then give the running back only 13 carries in the next game anyway. For a team that was 15-1 there are a lot of opportunities for improvement and change. It will be an interesting offseason.