Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood: Green Bay Packers Season Preview

2008 Record: 6-10

Did anyone who owned Aaron Rodgers in Fantasy Football leagues last year actually realize this team went 6-10? Rodgers had his much-anticipated (at least around these parts) coming out party last season. One of the most surprising facets of his game was his scrambling ability and his quickness outside the pocket, enabling him to turn a sack into a solid rushing gain. Let's set the record straight. Rodgers isn't a "running quarterback" in the likes of Michael Vick, Steve Young, or a young Donovan McNabb. Rodgers is, however, a mobile quarterback, in the likes of Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger.

With mainstay Donald Driver and blossoming young star Greg Jennings, I think we can all agree Green Bay's problem last season was not in the passing game. Ryan Grant, who had a breakout season in 2007, was supposed to be the answer at running back. Despite putting up over 1200 yards, Grant only found paydirt 4 times. He also toted the rock 312 times last season, showing Green Bay's faith in his ability. Additionally, since the Packers did not add a running back to the squad via the draft of free agency, it is safe to assume they are set on Grant as their feature back. Grant posted 4 100-yard games last season, yet also had 3 games where he didn't reach 40. The most troubling statistic for Grant is that he had as many fumbles as touchdowns (4). Grant is the definition of a hot-and-cold back, as he had five games where he averaged under 2.8 yds per carry, and four games where he averaged over 5.5 ypc.

The Packers defense, particularly their secondary, was touted as one of the best units in the league after the '07 campaign, yet their collapse was the main reason for Green Bay's 6-10 mark. They finished 20th in Total Defense, 26th in Rush Defense (though this could have something with having to play Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte each twice a year), and 12th in Pass Defense. In lieu of this, they brought in former Steelers assistant Dom Capers to be their defensive coordinator. Capers is changing their former 4-3 alignment to suit his 3-4 style. The biggest shift will be for former sack artist-extraordinaire Aaron Kampman to switch from being a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. At 6'4" 260, Kampman lacks the size to be a 3-4 end and should be able to make the transition. He has seen his sack totals steadily decline over the past two seasons off of his career high of 15.5 in 2006.

The Packers secondary, which put up good numbers but also broke down at key points in games, is anchored by three Pro Bowlers: cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris and safety Nick Collins. Harris is getting up there in years and has obviously lost a step, and likely made it into the Pro Bowl last year either because of name recognition or because the rest of the CBs in the NFC were just that bad. Harris had no INTs, 25 tackles, and only 9 pass defenses in 12 games last season. In contrast, nickel back Tramon Williams had career highs (not hard since this was only his 3rd year) in all 3 categories (5 INTs, 52 tackles, 14 PDs). Williams re-signed with the Pack this offseason for a 1-year deal, and looks to be the starter-in-waiting if Harris falters again. Woodson and Collins are as steady as they come. Both posted 7 INTs last season, with Collins taking 3 to the house and Woodson taking two.

Rodgers outpassed his opponent in 12 of the Pack's 16 games last season. Despite this, the Pack was only 5-7 in those games. Grant put up a lot of yards last season, but was only the game's leading rusher 5 times. Backup Brandon Jennings was also the leading rusher in two games, giving the Packers 7 games where their leading rusher outrushed the opponents'. Not surprisingly, the Packers were 5-2 when one of their backs posted the highest amount of rush yards in the game (4-1 when it was Grant).

Though the Packers record reached double-digit losses, they can take some solace in the fact that only two of their losses was by more than 10 points, and seven were by 4 points or less. The Packers were able to keep games close with their offense last season, and they should be able to perform to a similar standard this season, with Aaron Rodgers growing as a passer. Their defense will get a boost with the addition of highly touted prospect and #1 pick B.J. Raji at the nose tackle spot. They also added USC linebacker Clay Matthews with a late first round pick, who looks like he will be a solid 3-4 inside linebacker. If there is something to worry about, it's the rumors coming out of Packer camp that some of the veteran defensive players are unhappy with the transition to Capers' 3-4 scheme. Capers has had success in Pittsburgh and Carolina. However, if he can't get his players to buy into his system, it's going to be a long, long year when the defense is on the field at Lambeau.

Ian's Prediction: 10-6

Green Bay has a pretty easy schedule to start the season, but then a gauntlet to end the season after a Thanksgiving Day "showdown" with division rival Detroit. The Packers start with CHI, CIN, @StL, @MIN, DET, @CLE. If they don't start at least 4-2, this team is in trouble. They very well could start 6-0, as their only real challenge should be the Brett Favre game game at Minnesota. The opener against Chicago may turn into an Aaron Rodgers-Jay Cutler shootout, but given the recievers the respective teams have, you have to like Green Bay in that one. This team needs to rack up a load of wins before December rolls around if they want to have any chance of winning this division and making the playoffs. Their Post-Turkey Gauntlet features games at Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Arizona with cold weather accustomed teams Baltimore and Seattle visiting Lambeau. All in all, the Packers will likely be a similar team to last season. Last year they played a more difficult schedule and were just a few breaks from being a playoff contender. As Rodgers grows in the offense, I have to believe that the results will be a little better for the Packers this year, and (going out on a limb here), not only will they make the playoffs, but they will win this division.

John's Prediction:

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