It’s hard to get excited about preseason games in the NFL, but have you been paying attention to what Green Bay has been doing this summer? The Packers went 3-1 this preseason, but that’s not the story. After all, the Detroit Lions were a perfect 4-0 in last year’s preseason, and we all know how that turned out for them. It’s how Green Bay’s first-teamers simply dominated.
In the four preseason games, the Packers’ offensive starting unit scored nine touchdowns in 13 possessions. The average number of possessions in any one NFL game is around 10. So we’re talking about a unit that could be on pace to score six touchdowns per game. Pretty scary, right?
Obviously that’s not going to happen, but Green Bay’s offense has been impressive, nonetheless.
Aaron Rodgers is looking every bit of a Pro Bowl quarterback, and is glad the Brett Favre distractions are behind him. Despite all of the hoopla around the organization’s mishandling of Favre’s retirement, Rodgers turned in a stellar season with over 4,000 passing yards and 28 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions.
To help Rodgers out in the passing game, Ryan Grant must improve a his 3.9 yards per carry average of 2008. Grant burst onto the scene in the latter half of 2007, and must return to that form if the Packers want to reach their lofty expectations this year.
Of course, a lot will depend on the play of the offensive line, which was solid in the preseason. Packers quarterbacks were sacked seven times in four preseason games, and Rodgers did not go down once. Green Bay also had a 4.2 yards per carry average, with Grant chiming in at 4.4 on 21 attempts and two scores. Tyrell Sutton, a rookie from Northwestern, has been extremely impressive, averaging 4.8 yards on 40 carries. Sutton was released Saturday, but if the Packers get that kind of consistency all season, the offense could be frightening for defensive coordinators.
Defensively, it would appear that the Packers have picked up defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system well. They shut out Cleveland in the first preseason game, picking off a total of four passes, including one apiece from Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Against Buffalo, they didn’t allow a score until the second half, and led a dangerous Arizona team 38-10 at halftime.
The Packers have collected 12 sacks in the four preseason games, and are plus-8 in turnover ratio. Those kinds of numbers will win you plenty of games.
The preseason performance is just one reason why there is so much optimism around the Packers organization. Green Bay had the No. 5 offense in the NFL last year, and despite a 6-10 record, scored more points than it had allowed. Special teams was awful last year and the defense was very inconsistent and struggled against the run.
Green Bay led the league in defensive touchdowns scored and was near the top in takeaways. Where the Packers struggled was in rush defense, allowing over 131 yards per game – good for 26th in the league. The switch to a 3-4, and the selection of nose tackle B.J. Raji in April’s draft could help. What will help even more is getting several key players back from injury – namely linebacker Nick Barnett, who missed the last seven games last year with a torn ACL. Rookie outside linebacker Clay Matthews and fellow rookie Jarius Wynn should help a Green Bay pass rush that was just awful last year. Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Kampman, who led the team with just 9.5 sacks a season ago, will stand up this year as an outside linebacker. Theoretically, that will free up the eight-year veteran to get around the end quicker and register another double-digit sack season.
Green Bay’s schedule is very manageable, and a 10-win season seems more of a probability rather than a possibility.
A Sunday night game at home against Chicago opens the season. The Packers throttled the Bears in Lambeau Field a year ago. The Packers are better this year, and the Bears probably aren’t, even with the addition of quarterback Jay Cutler. Chicago’s defense is another year older, and the wide receivers leave a lot to be desired.
Cincinnati visits Lambeau in week two and a trip to St. Louis follows in week three. Both are games in which the Packers will be favored. Then comes the trip to Minnesota where Rodgers gets to look across the field at his former mentor and Packers legend, Brett Favre. The hatred toward Packers general manager Ted Thompson will be as thick as pea soup in the week prior to the game.
The Packers will most likely split with a very talented Minnesota team, with each winning at home. In what will probably be a two-team race for the division title, both matchups could go a long way in deciding who gets to call themselves division champions at season’s end.
The Packers then have home games against Detroit, Cleveland and Dallas, which won for the first time ever at Lambeau Field last year. Games against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Arizona look to be Green Bay’s biggest obstacles remaining on the schedule.
If the Packers can remained focused like they were in the preseason, then the sky is the limit. What they can’t afford are more injuries because if the preseason showed us anything, it’s that there is a big dropoff from the 1st team to the backups. But if they can remain relatively healthy and play consistently good football, then the NFC North title could go through Green Bay. An 11-win season is out there for the taking, but most Packers fans would accept the reciprocal of last year’s 6-10 mark.
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