The 7 Biggest Early Season Storylines for the Green Bay Packers

Brian Carriveau@@BrianCarriveauContributor ISeptember 19, 2012

The 7 Biggest Early Season Storylines for the Green Bay Packers

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    The season probably didn't start out the way the Green Bay Packers wanted it to begin. With two consecutive home games to start the year, the Packers no doubt had hopes to kick off the season at 2-0.

    That's not the way things worked out after a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener. But with a win over the Chicago Bears in Week 2, the Packers can feel good about themselves once again.

    At 1-1, the Packers have plenty of company in the NFL. And the down-and-up start of the season has created plenty of intriguing storylines in Green Bay.

Packers Are Not the Unquestioned No. 1 Team in the NFL

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    The Packers were just about everyone's favorite to win the Super Bowl before the season began.

    From Las Vegas to the football pundits, Green Bay was at the top of everyone's list.

    For the first time ever, the Associated Press initiated their Pro32 rankings of every team in the NFL beginning in 2012. And even though some might question the expertise of the pollsters, it's the closest thing the NFL has to a college-like Top 25 poll.

    The Packers were the Pro32's No. 1 team before training camp opened and were still at the top at the end of the preseason.

    Likewise, the Packers had the best odds of becoming Super Bowl XLVII champions at 6-to-1 before the season began as well, according to a report in USA Today among other outlets.

    The Packers opened their schedule against a difficult opponent in the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, who were also among the top teams in the NFL coming into the season.

    There aren't many people who would have said the Packers had an easy opening-day game, but with home-field advantage inside Lambeau Field, it appeared the majority of observers had the Packers penciled in for a 1-0 record to start the season.

    After the 49ers handled the Packers, it was clear the Packers are not the NFL's best team, at least not right now. There are a lot of issues the Packers need to take care of over the course of the season. But the good news for the Packers is that there's still a lot of time to get better.

Offense Struggling to Find Same Success

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    The Packers had one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL last season and definitely one of the best passing games in the league.

    That was assumed to be one of their strengths heading into the season, a unit headed by reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.

    Through two games, however, the Packers offense has been anything but explosive. They've been pedestrian, middling, average.

    In Week 1 against the 49ers, they couldn't get anything going. In Week 2, the running game was slightly better, but still, it was the defense that sparked the victory.

    As of yet, Aaron Rodgers hasn't been the dominant player fans have come to know and expect. Certainly, the offensive line and his receivers share their part of the blame as well.

    Gone from last year are the big plays, the 70-yard bombs to Jordy Nelson. Through two weeks, the Packers only have a single play that's gone for more than 40 yards. And even though they had six plays that went for 20 yards or more in the win over the Bears, none went for more than 30.

    Where the offense goes from here, no one knows. The talent is there to be dominant once again, but it has to be more consistent.

    The Packers can't afford to have Cedric Benson average 2.0 yards per carry like he did against the 49ers, and they can't afford for Jermichael Finley to continue dropping balls at an alarming rate.

Defense Making Big Strides

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    The Packers defense may have struggled in the season-opening loss to the 49ers, but they rebounded in a big way against the Bears and, in fact, dominated.

    By notching seven sacks, four interceptions and giving up only 168 yards of total offense to Chicago this past Thursday evening, the Packers defense announced its arrival. In fact, the last time an NFL defense had at least seven sacks, four interceptions and allowed fewer than 200 yards of offense was back in 2002 (the Falcons at Carolina).

    Perhaps it was telling after the loss to the 49ers that Charles Woodson didn't seem particularly worried and remained optimistic that the defense would improve.

    Maybe Woodson could see that there was a bunch of young talent on the Packers defense and that it would only be a matter of time until they started to learn the tricks of the trade and performed better.

    When the Packers used their first six draft choices on the defensive side of the football this offseason, they made a concerted effort to go about fixing a unit that was the worst in the NFL last season in terms of yardage allowed.

    Many of those draft choices—and another undrafted one—are playing big roles on the Packers defense this season. Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, Jerron McMillian, Mike Daniels and Dezman Moses are each contributing in their own way to the defensive effort.

    How these young players continue to develop will have a large bearing on how the Packers defense performs the rest of the way.

Clay Matthews off to Big-Time Start

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    In 2011, Clay Matthews had six sacks the entire season. In 2012, Matthews has six sacks through two games.

    That's not to say Matthews had a poor season last year. His career-high numbers in forced fumbles (three), interceptions (three) and passes defensed (nine) would say otherwise.

    But still, the Packers defense would have benefited had Matthews gotten to the quarterback more often in 2011. Or to put it another way, the Packers would have benefited had they possessed another player that could generate his own pass rush and take pressure off Matthews.

    The Packers went about adding talent on the defensive side of the football through the NFL draft, but whether they make a tangible difference this year remains to be seen.

    Regardless, Matthews has had a great deal of success so far this season with 2.5 sacks in Week 1 against the 49ers and 3.5 in Week 2 against the Bears.

    It's eerily reminiscent of the 2010 season when Matthews also had two sacks in the first two games of the year. Perhaps a side effect, as it was in 2010, will be that teams will have to devote more blockers to Matthews, which will open up opportunities for other players on the team.

Greg Jennings' Future Uncertain After Slow Start

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    Even before the season began, his future with the Packers was uncertain.

    During the offseason, the Packers had come to terms on contract extensions with punter Tim Masthay and guard T.J. Lang. That left Jennings as the highest-profile player on the team whose contract ends after the current season.

    Further complicating matters is the status of other high-profile players whose contracts are up in coming seasons, namely quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive lineman B.J. Raji.

    The Packers probably don't have enough money to sign all of them, and some tough choices will need to be made.

    Long-time Packers analyst Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel created a stir last week when he suggested the Packers should trade Jennings and reap the benefits of a high-round draft choice instead of allowing him to walk away in free agency.

    As a player who's gained popularity through being a two-time Pro Bowler, a product spokesman and someone who's active in the community, the Packers would probably take a public relations hit by letting Jennings go, but they may have few other choices.

    One option available to the Packers is that they can play the wait-and-see game. Jennings has struggled through the first two games of the season by suffering a pulled groin late in the Week 1 game against the 49ers and missing the Week 2 game totally against the Bears.

    Even when he did participate against San Francisco, Jennings' impact was a modest five catches for 34 yards. Combined with the time he missed in the preseason, there is legitimate injury concern about Jennings and his long-term ability to stay healthy, which could drive down his value.

    If that's the case, the Packers would still have a difficult decision to make, even at a lower rate, on a player who might be damaged goods.

Secondary Lineup Changes Spark Defense After Only One Game

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    In Week 1 against the 49ers, Jarrett Bush was the starter at cornerback in the base and dime defenses while M.D. Jennings lined up as the nickel and dime safety.

    Both players had issues in coverage, giving up big gains and allowing the 49ers to have ample success through the air.

    It didn't take long for defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff to make a change by inserting Sam Shields as the starter at cornerback ahead of Bush. But the changes didn't stop there. Rookie Casey Hayward replaced Bush in the dime defense as well.

    The impact was immediate, as Shields was only targeted in coverage a single time in Week 2 against the Bears, a pass that fell incomplete, according to statistics cited by Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

    At safety, rookie Jerron McMillian replaced Jennings, which paid off when the fourth-round draft choice made his first career interception and should have had another.

    The changes made in the Packers secondary weren't exactly bold, but it perhaps came as a surprise how short a chain Bush and Jennings had considering the short turnaround of only four days between Week 1 and Week 2.

    Because of the success the Packers defense had in Week 2, it's obvious that Shields and McMillian will continue to play the same roles going forward, and their performance will have a measurable impact on the defense as a whole. 

Special Teams Is Truly Special

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    Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum has endured his fair share of criticism in Green Bay over the years.

    Even during the Super Bowl win of 2010, the Packers special teams were considered the weak link on the team. But the addition of Randall Cobb in 2011 began the unit's turnaround.

    Cobb continued his stellar play that began during his rookie season with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown in Week 1 against the 49ers.

    In Week 2, the solid play continued, highlighted by the fake field goal for a touchdown on 4th-and-26 on a toss from holder Tim Masthay to tight end Tom Crabtree.

    Masthay also made waves with his punting by limiting dangerous return specialist Devin Hester to a harmless eight yards on two punt returns. And through two weeks, Masthay leads the NFL in punts downed inside the 20.

    And kicker Mason Crosby has chipped in by going a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 54-yard conversion against the Bears.

    It's amazing how much special teams has been turned from a weakness into a relative strength in Green Bay.