How Aaron Rodgers, Improved D Will Lead the Packers Back to the Playoffs
The Green Bay Packers suffered through a season of close-calls and near-misses in a disappointing 2008 campaign.
They lost seven games by four points or less and fell from an appearance in the 2007 NFC Championship game to a dismal 6-10 mark a season ago.
But the Packers have had a productive and drama-free offseason, and look to regain their perch atop the competitive NFC North division in 2009.
Oh, and the Lions have to win a game at some point, right?
The Packers have the talent to be a playoff team this season, but they will need to shore up their defense and finish off a few games on offense.
Here is a breakdown of the Packers strengths and weaknesses entering 2009, why I think they will be a playoff team, and what can derail their postseason aspirations.
Reasons To Believe
Aaron Rodgers played exceptionally well in his first season as a starter, tossing 28 touchdowns against only 13 interceptions.
He is surrounded with two 1,000-yard receivers in Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, and a reliable, if unspectacular running game led by Ryan Grant.
Grant, who missed much of training camp in a contract dispute in 2008, should be able to bump up his pedestrian 3.9 yards-per-carry average a year ago behind an offensive line that looks to be upgraded from last season.
And if he can't produce, Brandon Jackson (5.5 YPC last season) can pick up the slack.
The Packers brought in versatile guard Duke Preston from Buffalo, and drafted T.J. Lang and a potential sleeper in Jamon Meredith to provide depth to a unit that was shaky at times a year ago.
The Packers have fielded a young offensive line over the past few years, and they may finally be ready to put it all together in 2009.
Meanwhile, the defense was overhauled after an abysmal 2008 campaign that saw them fail time and time again to make big stops to pull out the aforementioned tight games.
However, the defense was also ravaged by injury last season, with Nick Barnett, Atari Bigby, Cullen Jenkins, and Al Harris all missing significant time.
To help reshape the porous unit, the Packers made the switch to a 3-4 alignment and brought in first-round picks B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews.
If Ted Thompson actually felt the need to move up in the draft to get him, Matthews must be good.
That infusion of talent, along with several key players back and healthy for the Packers, should help the unit rebound in a big way in 2009.
On paper, the Packers appear to have a ton of front seven talent to pair with the rock-solid cornerback tandem of Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Play-making safeties Atari Bigby and Nick Collins should make the secondary a dangerous one for opposing quarterbacks to throw on.
Linebacker appears to be a particularly strong spot for the Pack, with Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk manning inside spots while Aaron Kampman and either Matthews or Brady Poppinga work the outside.
Pairing a trio of successful NFL veterans with a gifted and athletic young linebacker in Matthews should be a recipe for success at the position.
That talent should give incoming defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff plenty of options as they develop a scheme to give opposing quarterbacks nightmares in 2009, while attempting to shore up what has been a poor defense against the run in recent years.
Causes For Concern
Teams moved the ball at will against Green Bay at times last season, especially on the ground, where the Packers were 26th in rushing yards allowed.
Noted 3-4 guru Dom Capers was brought in to turn the unit around, but the switch can be a complicated one, with it generally taking teams a year or two to acclimate to the schemes and to find the right personnel fits to make it work.
Make no mistake, a change in scheme and alignment can only do so much to fix a unit that struggled mightily last season. And the Packers still have some holes to fill.
Raji and Matthews will help with the transition, but there are still a great deal of question marks concerning the teams ability to make the alignment work on such short notice.
The Packers still appear short on defensive linemen that can hold the point in the 3-4, and they may ask nose tackle Ryan Pickett to attempt manning an end position, something he has never done in his career.
Otherwise, the Packers are counting on production from players coming off of injury like Cullen Jenkins and Justin Harrell, and undersized ends who may struggle with the responsibilities of playing the position in the 3-4.
Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman is also being asked to become an outside linebacker, and it remains to be seen whether he can come anywhere close to matching his previous success and production at a new position.
Beyond Kampman, the Packers have lacked another true pass-rushing threat since KGB was a factor off of the edge.
The Packers are also aging at cornerback, with Al Harris and Charles Woodson once again being relied upon to make it through an entire season shutting down opposing receivers.
Will they be able to stay on the field at 34 and 32 and remain productive for another season?
If either vet goes down, the dropoff is significant, as the Packers are a bit thin at CB. Tramon Williams is a solid No. 3, but Will Blackmon still has a bit to prove at corner and the rest of the depth chart is muddled.
Additionally, the 3-4 defense asks its corners to play a little more zone coverage as opposed to man-to-man, a change that the less-than-fleet-footed duo may struggle with at times.
Thompson really didn't address the cornerback position in the offseason, and it may come back to haunt the defense.
Aaron Rodgers also still needs to prove that he can perform with the game on the line. He had several opportunities to lead game-winning drives last season and pulled exactly zero of them out.
He will need to find some of the moxie and magic of ol' No. 4 to help the Packers pull out a couple of close ones in 2009. Can he do it?
This team should put up a ton of points on offense, and the additions on defense should be enough to improve significantly.
Nobody will mistake the Packer D for the Steel Curtain, but barring injuries, the offense should be enough to offset a solid, but far from dominant defense.
Rodgers did struggle to pull out games late, but he will learn from his failures last year and come through for a win or two with late drives. Let's remember, he was a first-year starter in 2008 and still has room to grow as a player and leader.
The Packers also have a weak schedule, and should get off to a fast start if they take care of their business.
This team was extremely close to being a contender last season, and teams that lose a bunch of close games are usually solid bets to make a jump in the following season.
I see the Packers flipping that 6-10 around for a 10-6 season and a playoff berth in 2009.
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