The last game of the preseason is for the coaches and the scrubs. The starters will play one series except for the big uglies and a few others. But even they won’t get big minutes Thursday night in Nashville.
The Packers have their starting line-ups essentially set, at least on offense. There are a few questions still on defense, but with injuries we may not know the answers until midseason anyway.
Win, lose, or draw this has been the most exciting and encouraging preseason in sometime for Packers fans. The offense has done whatever it has wanted and the defense has turned over opponents at a startling rate.
Additionally, the 3-4 transition has been much better than expected and as long as some of the soft spots in the coverage can be covered up to some degree, Peter King’s prediction of an NFC Championship appearance doesn’t seem far fetched.
Since the game against the Titans means nothing in the standings and will show us little to nothing in terms of what the season might bring, I want to shine a light on a few players, coaches, and elements that you ought to be pay attention to.
Starter with the most to prove
A.J. Hawk’s name would appear here if not for the fact that he was a top 5 pick and the coaches insist he has graded well in the preseason despite being second to last on the team in tackles for starters. So, in his stead, the man who was last on that list: Atari Bigby.
Bigby may have been the worst fit into the 3-4 because he just isn’t a playmaker in coverage. He can play near the line of scrimmage, but his instincts in the passing game are about hitting not playing a receiver. He was a key cog in the defense’s improvement in 2008, but he has struggled with injuries and inconsistency since.
His potential replacement, Anthony Smith, has been outstanding, making plays with interceptions while showing a knack for being around the football. Smith is a better cover safety and despite his slight frame, he can lay the wood.
He was the gem of the 2009 Ted Thompson free agent class (not that it’s a long list), and Smith should get plenty of run in sub packages anyway. But if Bigby doesn’t step up early in the season, he could be back on the bench.
Familiar name most in danger of being cut
I’m not sure Tyrell Sutton has shown enough after that Browns game to make the team, but even though he has gotten plenty of ink in the media, he’s not a familiar name with the average Packer fan (More on him later).
The man I’m thinking of has been a starter for the last couple seasons and really played well, but has lost his job for one reason or another.
Scott Wells wound up on the second team behind Jason Spitz after some injuries, but not poor play. If Spitz can play guard (which he has) I don’t understand going with Spitz over Wells rather than play them together unless they like Josh Sitton that much, which they reportedly do.
However, the line-ups have been set and Wells will be a back-up. You can’t pay almost $2 million for a back-up center. If he’s not going to play he has to either be traded or cut. That is the bottom line.
Yeah, he’s great insurance, but Spitz can play multiple positions, so can T.J. Lang and Daryn Colledge, so it just doesn’t make sense to keep Wells if he’s not starting.
Coach with the biggest load to shoulder
This is another no-brainer: Kevin Greene. Arguably the best 3-4 rush linebacker ever, Greene was tasked with teaching a 4-3 team how to play the 3-4.
Getting pressure on the quarterback was a problem for the Packers last season, but generating pressure in the preseason has been easy thanks to the blitzing schemes of Dom Capers.
However, good offenses with time to scheme for those blitzes will find ways to beat it. The Packers will have to find a way to get pressure with four and five guys, which mean those outside linebackers have to produce.
Aaron Kampman is one of the most prolific pass-rushers in Packers history already, and has been one of the best in the league over the last couple seasons. However, it remains to be seen how he can transition to a stand-up position.
The other side we’re not even sure who will be the starter. Brady Poppinga has won the job almost by default. While his play has been stellar, he’s only getting minutes because Jeremy Thompson and Clay Matthews have battled injuries all preseason. Thompson brings the best combination of strength, and agility, while Matthews is by far the best athlete. Poppinga is just a player who seems to be in the right place at the right time.
By Week 8, we could have had three different starters there.
It will be up to Greene to make the right call, and ultimately it seems like Thompson or more likely Matthews’ job to take. Greene must get him ready. At least Clay already has the Kevin Greene hair thing down.
Back-up capable of making biggest impact
The answer here is obvious, but he’s capable of making such a huge impact (and I’m so excited about him), it is worth talking about.
Jermichael Finley has a chance to be special. If he realizes his potential as a player, he won’t be a back-up for long. He is a match-up nightmare, which he showed last week on a play I just can't get over.
Following a turnover, the Packers split Finley out wide where the Cards decided to match him with Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie one of the fastest and most athletic players in the NFL. Finley runs to the endzone and catches a back shoulder fade (to be fair, it was a perfect throw) for six.
If defenses can't match their best cover corner on your back-up tight end, you have a serious weapon at your disposal.
Most talented player who may not make the roster
My compatriot Jersey Al would probably say Kregg Lumpkin, and he’s not that far off (although Lumpkin appears to have zero shot at making the roster). Running back will be the toughest position to pair down to fit the roster. Ryan Grant is obviously a lock, with Brandon Jackson a solid bet.
The question is what happens next? Wynn has played well when he’s been healthy and able to play. In fact, he’s even flashed the ability to be an every down back if it weren’t for injuries. He just hasn’t had may opportunities this preseason.
On the other hand, Tyrell Sutton has had a ton of opportunities and has played well when given the chance. He isn’t dynamic as a returner, which will detract from his value, but the Packers don’t really need a returner because they have Will Blackmon.
Sutton was an outstanding high school player, an at times dominating college player, and looks like he has a place on an NFL roster. The problem is, he isn’t clearing waivers to make the practice squad in Green Bay. If they Packers want to keep him they’ll have to put him on the active roster.
With the need to carry extra linebackers in the 3-4 and depth at other positions, that just seems like a tough sell at this point.
Element most in need of work
It seems strange that such a stacked secondary would struggle in coverage, but there were some big holes this preseason. If not for turnovers, the Packers pass defense could have surrendered plenty of points.
Turnovers are a funny thing, because they tend to come in waves. Teams will find a way to deal with the pressure packages (at least to some degree), so every once in a while you will have to play straight coverage. When that has happened, or the blitz hasn’t gotten home, the Packers D has been gashed.
This is the case with plenty of teams, but the point is the blitz isn’t always going to create pressure, and you can’t always blitz. So either Dom Capers will have to go to more man concepts if he knows he won’t get pressure with a particular call, or find better ways to mask soft zones.
Considering this is a defense that has given up 10 points all preseason, it isn’t a huge concern, but something to keep an eye on. Sure defenses like the Eagles, Steelers, and Giants live off blitzing and pressure, but watch their games and see when they don’t get the pressure, they are just like any other team.
Another potential scenario (and one we saw in Arizona) is that an opponent becomes so concerned with the blitz that when the Packers bluff blitz and drop into coverage, the QB, who hasn’t been comfortable all game, just doesn’t know what to do with the ball.
This last preseason game is about staying healthy and making final roster decisions. Some players will play their way on the team, and some will play themselves off( I’m looking at you Brian Brohm).
If the Packers can get all 22 starters to next weekend for Chicago, then even if they lose 56-3 tomorrow night, it won’t have mattered. Get healthy, get the roster together, and get me to Week 1.