As the Green Bay Packers prepare for the 2012 regular season, the loss from January against the Giants still stings. The Pack went 15-1 in the regular season and were ready to make another deep run into the playoffs with the ultimate goal of capturing their second consecutive Super Bowl victory. That painful loss in the divisional round of the playoffs no doubt is what is stuck in the Packers' heads, not a near perfect regular season.
In order to improve from last year and end this season with a sense of greater accomplishment, Green Bay needs to make some changes.
Ted Thompson began that movement by using six out of his eight draft picks to improve the league's 32nd-ranked defense and trading up multiple times to get better players.
Even if all of those picks are home runs, most won't be able to make a great impact for a year or two. In the meantime, the Packers need to improve at multiple spots if they want to change this year's outcome and make a return to the Promised Land.
Here are five players that should be given extended playing time to make that change happen.
The Packers are already loaded at the receiver spot, and their passing game is by far their strongest facet, but Randall Cobb can make it even better.
He already showed what he can do in the return game. His explosiveness allowed him to return both a kick and punt for touchdowns.
They don't have to throw to him 100 times this year, but the Packers should give Cobb the ball in weird little plays, like screens, quick slants, or end-arounds. Since Green Bay doesn't have a solid running game, plays like this would help keep the defense honest so they're not consistently dropping seven or eight into coverage without paying for it.
Cobb will have to fix his fumbling problem, though. If he wants increased playing time, he needs to hold on to that ball.
Along with the lack of a pass rush, the loss of Nick Collins was one of the biggest factors in Green Bay's defense dropping so low.
The Pack got repeatedly burned for huge plays that demoralized the whole team. It is the job of the safeties to prevent such highlight reels from occurring.
Of the starters from 2011 after Collins went down, Morgan Burnett showed promise early in the year, but kind of trailed off after awhile. Charlie Peprah caught five interceptions and made 94 tackles, but overall the big plays he gave up outweighed the positives.
M.D. Jennings was a surprise at camp last year, making the team as an undrafted rookie. He worked hard on special teams and showed potential. This year at minicamps and OTAs, Jennings lined up with Burnett to take defensive first-team snaps while Peprah was out with an injury.
With the play of Peprah and Burnett from last year and the fact that fellow safety Jerron McMillian is only a rookie, Jennings should be given a chance to start. He's displayed his potential, and honestly, the Packers' pass defense can't get much worse than last year.
Evan Dietrich-Smith made his first starts of his young career last year, and he made them count. As only a 25-year-old, he proved he could play with the Packers' front line, and play well. So well, in fact, to the point where Ndamukong Suh got fed up and stomped on him while he lied on the ground defenseless.
With the departure of Scott Wells, the Packers brought in Jeff Saturday as a short-term solution while they would either develop or find the center for the future.
But I believe Dietrich-Smith is ready. He proved he could play multiple positions at a high level, so we know he's no slouch. Plus, he already knows the Packers' system better than Saturday.
Dietrich-Smith is going to be the starting center eventually, so Green Bay would be best off starting him now. He would not disappoint.
The Packers drafted Nick Perry to be the pass rushing compliment to Clay Matthews, but I think Vic So'oto can help as well.
So'oto is a versatile player. He shouldn't start over Perry, but he could line up as a defensive end or any linebacker spot to rush the quarterback on obvious passing downs.
So'oto had a great preseason last year, but was unable to get going in the regular season due to injuries. If he can stay completely healthy, he should be a handful to deal with.
Other linebackers like Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones have shown they don't have what it takes to be a solid pass rusher, so why not give So'oto a shot?
He's a bit undersized for a linebacker at 5'11", but D.J. Smith can play.
In his rookie season last year, Smith saw a four-game stretch where he started thee times, racked up 33 tackles, caught one interception and broke up another pass.
This period came while Smith was filling in for regular starters A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, and I would say he played better than both of the usuals.
Hawk is a smart player who is great at calling plays and audibles for the defense, but he struggles a lot in actual play, especially against the pass. He's never lived up to his potential as a fifth overall draft pick, and as a 28-year-old now, I don't think he will ever reach that potential.
Smith is ready to play. I say put him in over Hawk.