5 Ways the Green Bay Packers Offense Can Still Improve
The Green Bay Packers had the best regular season record in the NFL last season at 15-1—a single loss short of perfection. They also scored the most points in the league a year ago, largely behind the strength of their offense and a powerful passing game.
On the surface, it wouldn't appear as if the Packers have much room for improvement. The status quo would be just fine for most people.
But then consider that they don't want next season to end the same way last season did, with a loss in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Even though the Packers finished third in the NFL in total offensive yards, averaging an impressive 405.1 yards per game, that was more than 60 yards per game less than the New Orleans Saints, who finished first in the league with an average of 467.1 yards per game.
The Packers have to strive to get better, because opponents will only get smarter and craftier in the way they defend the Packers' aerial attack.
Improvement is possible. Here's how.
Take Pressure off the Passing Game with the Run
The Packers finished third in the NFL in passing yards in 2011. They also finished third in total yards, meaning the running game did little to improve their overall standings.
Finishing in the bottom third of league (27th), the Packers averaged less than 100 rushing yards per game (97.4). Without the threat of the run going forward, opponents will be able to gear themselves to defend against the run more and more.
To be sure, the pass will continue to be the bread and butter of the Packers offense. As long as Aaron Rodgers and the deepest set of receivers in all of professional football are in Green Bay, there's no reason not to rely upon passing attack.
Still, a more effective run game will pay dividends by taking pressure off Rodgers and company. Instead of opponents pinning their ears back and rushing the passer with abandon, they'd have to at least respect the run.
The burden falls primarily on the shoulders of James Starks. With Ryan Grant out of the picture, Starks figures to get a majority of the workload in 2012.
In order to do that, however, Starks has to stay healthy. After missing the majority of his rookie season with a hamstring injury, Starks missed three more games in 2011 with knee and ankle issues.
Head coach Mike McCarthy also hinted this offseason that as far as run-blocking goes, the Packers offensive line will employ more power-run principles than they have in the past.
The Packers have traditionally been a zone-blocking team under McCarthy, so a change in philosophy may be just what the doctor ordered.
Eliminate the Drops
With the finger pointed squarely at tight end Jermichael Finley, the Packers would greatly benefit from fewer dropped passes in 2012.
Finley was the team's primary culprit a season ago when he dropped 13 out of 103 targeted passes from stats tracked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Furthermore, ProFootballFocus.com said only two tight ends in the NFL dropped a higher percentage of their passes than Finley in 2011.
What's puzzling is that Finley did not struggle with drops in his first three-and-a-half seasons in professional football. Only in the second half of last season did they become an issue.
Perhaps Finley was distracted by an expiring contract. But with a new two-year, $14 million deal signed this offseason, maybe the distractions will vanish.
Dropped passes were also an issue in 2011 for James Jones, whose six in 57 targets worked out to a drop percentage of over 10 percent.
While the drops by the rest of the wide receivers weren't out of the ordinary, better hands by all would go a long way toward sustaining drives.
Get the Ball in Randall Cobb's Hands
The world saw what Randall Cobb is capable of in 2011 largely through his exploits on special teams.
His electric 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on Opening Day against the New Orleans Saints earned him the NFL's Play of the Year Award.
Another touchdown by punt return later that season showed that Cobb is dangerous with the football in his hands.
Because the Packers boasted a deep and veteran group of receivers—and presumably also because they liked to keep Cobb fresh for his kick returns—they limited his playing time on offense.
Those days may be over. When Cobb was a rookie and perhaps still didn't have a complete grasp of the offense, the Packers could get away with rationing his snaps.
By doing so in 2012, they would be doing the offense a disservice.
While Cobb will continue to fulfill his return duties, expect the Packers to expand his role on the offensive side of the football as well. A changing of the guard is likely to take place. After years of Donald Driver making so much noise from the slot receiver position, Cobb will start to steal some of that playing time away.
Cobb might be at his best when he's getting the ball in space, so some bubble and smoke screens could be part of the game plan for the Packers offense in 2012.
Marshall Newhouse's Continued Development
Watching Marshall Newhouse was a roller coaster ride in 2011.
On one play he'd surprise observers with his sneaky athleticism, and on the next he'd give up a sack.
Newhouse gave up a few too many sacks last year, but considering it was the first time he received any NFL regular season playing time, Newhouse performed about as good as could be expected.
After filling in for an injured Chad Clifton, Newhouse is going to get every chance to be his long-term replacement now that Clifton has been released.
As long as Newhouse can continue to develop, and entering just his third season in the NFL, there's every reason to believe he's going to keep improving. The Packers will be in better shape.
The rest of the offensive line is solid. With a starting five that includes T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday, Josh Sitton and Bryan Bulaga, there's no reason to think they won't hold up their end of the bargain.
Entrusted with protecting Aaron Rodgers' blindside, Newhouse has to play up to the same level as his teammates. And as far as the Packers are concerned, there's no more important job than keeping Rodgers upright.
If experience is the best teacher, Newhouse will make big strides in 2012.
Maximize the Skill Sets of Alex Green, Brandon Saine
The Packers still don't fully know what they have in a pair of second-year running backs, Alex Green and Brandon Saine. Training camp and the preseason will be a proving ground for both of them, figuring out how they fit into the Packers offense.
James Starks is likely to get the majority of the carries, but he'll need to be spelled.
Coming out of college, Green drew comparisons to Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams, a player with obvious power. With Ryan Grant out of the picture, Green could fill a similar role with the Packers.
As far as Saine goes, his speed is among his best assets, and in limited opportunities last season, he displayed good hands.
With talents like that, Saine could be the primary receiving option out of the backfield.
Until both Green and Saine get more opportunities, however, fans can only speculate how they'll be incorporated into the Packers offense.
Once the coaching staff discerns how to use their backup running backs, the offense will be better off.