How the Green Bay Packers Can Avoid 15-1 and Done in 2012
Piers Morgan sets the ball down on a given spot on the field, sizes up Aaron Rodgers and waits for the performance.
The collective audition known as "The Pack" begins, scoring not only from Mr. Morgan’s initial spot but also from any other spot the team chooses. The audience is on their feet in disbelief.
These guys are good.
It’s touchdowns galore, like a Madden ’97 matchup. Every play works to perfection.
Touchdown flipper-doodle, Jolly-green screen monster, Flash-dash splash reverse flinger. The plays are endless in success. (Gamers, don’t go searching for those—they’re not real.)
As the brilliance comes to an end, the audience, along with Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel, seem convinced. But Piers Morgan is not.
“That’s all?” he asks.
The Pack is in disbelief. Did he not just witness this electrifying performance of point production?
“Sorry,” Piers says, “we’re looking for the total package.”
In 2010, when Green Bay convincingly became Super Bowl champions, the Packers tallied 47 sacks on defense but yielded a mere 3,107 passing yards to opposing quarterbacks. They gave up only 24 touchdowns.
One year later in 2011, their sack total fell to 29. They were torched in the secondary as teams passed for a combined 4,796 yards on their defense. Their opponents scored 41 touchdowns against them, 17 more than the previous year.
What does this mean? First of all, it means that Green Bay’s offense is quite potent. For as poorly as the defense ranked this year, the team still won 15 games and did so by putting up explosive numbers.
But it also means the team has some areas to address.
I think everyone can agree that the Packers are one of the league’s finest teams and organizations right now. Despite their poor defensive rankings in 2011, they still managed to win the time of possession battle over the course of the entire season and were plus-24 in the turnover ratio, logging 31 team interceptions.
Those are important statistics.
But if Green Bay wants to reclaim their championship status, they are going to have to address some areas heading into next season.
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Clay Matthews headlines the linebacker corps, but the long-haired maniac can’t be a one-man show. Fellow OLB Erik Walden had a pedestrian season, which “allowed opponents to liberally double-team Matthews,” according to Yahoo! Sports. Even if Walden returns in 2012, Green Bay can certainly use more quality at the position and its reserve spots.
Inside, the outlook is a little more promising. Desmond Bishop appears to be entering his prime, while A.J. Hawk remains serviceable, albeit unimpressive. There is youth in D.J. Smith and Robert Francois, two players who add nice depth. They even received some game experience this year due to starters' injuries.
The class of pass-rushers in the upcoming 2012 NFL Draft is deep—very deep. There’s a strong likelihood that Green Bay will have a top-tier prospect on the board when they select in the first round. My expectation is they'll grab someone with that pick who can help them immediately.
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Similar to the situation at linebacker, the ineffectiveness of Green Bay’s defensive line enabled opponents to zero in on B.J. Raji. The absence of Cullen Jenkins was felt heavily, as Howard Green and Ryan Pickett failed to impress. With the promising Mike Neal injured in training camp, the tread wore down quickly on the remaining big guys’ tires.
In a 3-4 defense, it’s essential to get pressure off the edges. If teams can do so, a big guy like Raji is free to blast up the middle. But if not, Raji’s impact is lessened and the edge is sealed up, resulting in no quarterback pressure whatsoever.
In 2010, B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews combined for 20 sacks.
In 2011, they combined for nine.
Desmond Bishop’s emergence at ILB should help, but finding a capable play-maker on the defensive line to take some of the constant pressure off of Raji is a necessity for the former champs.
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As is often the unfortunate case in the NFL, injuries affected the Packers’ offensive line in 2011, which led to a continuous shuffle of inconsistency. Marshall Newhouse filled in well for Chad Clifton, who I presume will not be back next season. Newhouse is still young and developing his game. Plus, the extensive experience he received this year will only help him improve moving forward. The important thing is that he seems to have the raw talent required to protect his quarterback’s blind side.
Green Bay needs better depth across the board at each offensive line position. Former first-round pick Derek Sherrod will be coming off of surgery on his broken leg and may not be ready for training camp. That means the Packers will need to have players ready to fill in at both tackle spots, especially if Clifton is released.
The team also does not have adequate personnel behind the interior linemen, particularly starting center Scott Wells. It’s no secret that without a capable center, an offense can struggle mightily.
Look for the Pack to spend multiple picks addressing the offensive line in April.
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The Packers’ offense is one of the reasons teams load up on corners. Sharp quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers can fling the ball around to talented receivers at will if given time. Quality receivers and an established system give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares. So teams load up on talented and versatile defensive backs to ensure they have all angles covered.
Green Bay is going to have to join the party.
Although they tallied 31 interceptions this year, the Pack will be looking to add depth at cornerback and possibly at safety. Within the NFC North, Green Bay faces Calvin Johnson and the Lions twice a year. The NFC as a whole boasts the successes of potent offenses like those found in New Orleans, New York (Giants), Dallas and Philadelphia.
The need of strong secondary play is intensified when a team lacks a productive pass-rush as Green Bay currently does.
But the lack of a pass-rush isn’t the blame for the Packers’ secondary woes right now.
The defense needs to become more physical, and they simply need to cover better. Despite still playing at a high level, Charles Woodson is aging. The guys behind him presently did not produce this year as they needed to.
The interceptions were there, but they came at the cost of ranking dead last in passing yards allowed as teams furiously tried to keep pace with the Packers’ high scoring offense.
Green Bay will certainly address the secondary this offseason, most likely with at least one cornerback and one safety.
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Green Bay is one of those few teams in the NFL that can win a game with their quarterback throwing 50-plus passes any given week.
But they shouldn’t have to be.
This offense has had some decent talent at the running back position in recent years, but production has been inconsistent. Veteran Ryan Grant is a free agent, James Starks couldn’t stay healthy in 2011 and Brandon Saine is still a virtually unknown commodity at this point.
Doesn’t sound much like a stable position now, does it?
Green Bay will do its homework on available free agents. Imagine Marshawn Lynch bringing "Beast Mode" to Lambeau. (A very close friend of mine just fist-pumped.)
Mike Tolbert and Tim Hightower are other intriguing options, as they can both catch passes out of the backfield and pick up the blitz on third down. Tolbert, to me, is an especially intriguing option for Green Bay.
I expect Ryan Grant to be back with the Pack as the front office looks for a dependable backup, whether that be a veteran or a rookie. Starks and Saine will have to compete for spots as this team plans to right the ship with a vengeance in 2012.