Greg Gillis' Packers Preseason PreviewWith the Packers taking on Seattle tonight in their second preseason game, PCH Packers' columnist provides a preseason preview.
By: Greg Gillis, Pierce County Herald
Maybe it’s the air, maybe it’s the water, maybe it’s the food. But whatever it is, a miracle (or magic, or the end of two a days) has happened in Hattiesburg, MS for the second straight season. Yes, once again a potential career ending injury got better after the first pre-season game, and by Tuesday of the following week, Brett Favre was able to walk unassisted onto a plane, and get off in Minneapolis where he was taken to his teammates by a Viking representative (Brad Childress in 2009, Ryan Longwell in 2010).
Hard to top last year’s story, where a tendon in his throwing shoulder / arm was cut, and Brett wouldn’t have the ability to throw in the NFL anymore, that would be super-human. Yet the Vikings got to the NFC Championship game, and if not for 5 turnovers probably would have played the Colts in the Super Bowl. This year, it was ankle surgery. Not surgery right after the season, but surgery that was reported in May. But recently it was still bothering him and he went to the Florida office of Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon of the top professional athletes. Favre said he would play if his ankle was up to it. Amazingly, on the same day of the week (Tuesday after the first pre-season game, August 18, 2009 and August 17, 2010), Favre came back. The guys (Longwell, Jared Allen and Steve Hutchinson) met with him on Monday in Mississippi, told him they wanted him back, sang kum-by-ya, and all flew to Minnesota on Tuesday.
The bottom line: until Favre misses his first regular season game to end his consecutive games played streak, assume he’ll be back for more, unless he has a horrible year and it’s clear to all it’s time to hang it up. If you have a lingering ailment, like a sore toe or something, try hanging out in Hattiesburg the weekend of the Vikings first pre-season game. Past results suggest you’ll feel better by Tuesday.
I don’t spend a lot of time watching the first pre-season game or two. I really don’t care if the guys we cut or play just special teams are better than the guys Cleveland cuts or just plays special teams. Even when the starters (1s) are playing, neither team shows much on offense or defense, so you can’t take much out of how good or bad things are going. Some teams go undefeated in pre-season but have a losing record in the regular season. Other teams don’t look very sharp at times, but come back and make the playoffs.
But there are a few areas of concern with the Packers, and while things will be different when they open the season against Philly, the concerns haven’t gone away. On defense, they are the secondary, lack of a pass rush, especially from the defensive line, no impact players at linebacker (other than Clay Matthews who was put in position to rush the passer and did a good job), and injuries / suspensions.
Without spending too much time on each issue, the secondary has had some problems. Atari Bigby wanted a new contract, then happened to mention the ankle wasn’t 100%. Al Harris is 35 and coming off of knee surgery. Will Blackmon is also coming off of knee surgery. Morgan Burnett is expected to develop, but at this point he’s a rookie. Pat Lee, Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood and others are trying to make a case for getting into the game. Assuming the starters are Nick Collins and Atari Bigby at safety, and Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams or Al Harris at corner, the secondary is OK. But that assumes Bigby and Harris can return. It also shows the top 5 players when they go to the nickel. The problem isn’t the starters, it’s the backups coming in when 4 and 5 receivers line up for the opponents offense. With no pass rush, there aren’t enough cover guys. Remember Pittsburgh, Arizona, and Minnesota (twice)? No pass rush and poor coverage by the backups mean a lot of offense for the other team.
Then there’s linebacker. A solid group, not a spectacular group. Not much in the way of impact players. They aren’t getting picks or forcing fumbles. Clay Matthews is given a chance to rush the QB, and he usually gets there, but now the other team knows he’s coming. He was effective coming in un-blocked, but had a hard time shedding blockers. Nick Barnett is pretty fast and usually makes the play, but the next time he wraps up and drives the runner back on third and short will be the first. A.J Hawk might be coming around as a hitter, but hasn’t lived up to 5th overall pick in the draft status. Brad Jones or Brandon Chillar are solid players, but aren’t impact guys either. Desmond Bishop looks good in pre-season but doesn’t get on the field much in the regular season.
The defensive line lost it’s best player, Johnny Jolly, for the 2010 season when he was suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for codeine possession. The front 3 of Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett all have some skills, but the backups are unproven. In a curious move, Ryan Pickett, the biggest of the 3, was moved to defensive end to let Raji play on the nose. I know the feeling is that the D linemen are supposed to take out the blockers and let the linebackers make tackles. That also lets Raji rush straight up the middle to get to the QB, and he is clearly quicker than Pickett. Pickett can’t get to the QB from NT, so going to DE isn’t going to hurt, especially if the blitz is from that side. But I have a problem with plays going wide—sweeps, swing passes, and screen passes. Cullen Jenkins is actually pretty good at disrupting those plays. Raji would have better speed as a rusher, but just as important, can get out in front of a sweep or swing pass and contain the edge. Pickett doesn’t move very far or very fast. The concern is he can be blocked, and the blocker can move on to take out a linebacker, which means big plays can happen fairly regularly.
The defensive numbers weren’t bad last season. The Packers were 2nd in the NFL in total defense at 284 yards per game (the Jets were first at 252). Green Bay was first in rush defense in yards per game (83.3), and second in yards per carry (3.6, the Ravens allowed 3.4). The pass defense was 5th, giving up 201 yards per game, and allowing a passer rating of just 68.8 (4th). Green Bay was 4th in scoring defense at 18.6 points per game (the Jets were best with 14.8).
Yet, when they played teams with top QBs, the defense was shredded. In 2010, they play against Donovan Mcnabb and the Redskins, Matt Ryan and the Falcons, Tom Brady and the Patriots, Tony Romo and the Cowboys, Eli Manning and the Giants. Chad Henne is supposed to look good this season now that the Dolphins have Brandon Marshall. And Matthew Stafford and the Lions improved in the off season. Jay Cutler now has Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator in Chicago. If they trade for or can pick up even adequate receivers to go with Johnny Knox and Greg Olsen, the Bears won’t be easy. Then there’s the 2 games with Minnesota and Brett Favre. Last season those games went to the Vikings. Until they can slow down teams with top QBs and beat them, the stats are nice, but they don’t pass the eye test. Playoffs are definitely possible, but advancing doesn’t look very good until they can develop a pass rush, make some plays at linebacker, and have the backups cover somebody in the secondary (Woodson and Williams are fine, hopefully Harris can come back from injury).
I’ll hit the offense in the next issue, but here are a few points to ponder:
• If Ryan Grant goes down, is there currently a player on the roster who can replace him as the starter? Obviously someone will, but can they be productive?
• It’s clear that if Aaron Rodgers gets hurt, the season is over. But that’s true with most teams.
• Finally, while it’s fun to watch, is a pass oriented offense the best idea for games at an outdoor Wisconsin Stadium in December and January?