The 2011 NFL season kicks off tonight as the Green Bay Packers play host to the New Orleans Saints. The past two Super Bowl winners will get things going around 7:40 CT after Lady Antebellum, Kid Rock and Maroon 5 perform as part of the NFL Kickoff celebration, or something like that. But I digress, back to football. Here are five keys to the game that will decide which one of these two NFC contenders will start the year 1-0, and which will be looking for the first win in Week 2.
Battle of the blitz
No one was better in 2010 at passing against a blitz than Aaron Rodgers, and he will need to be just as good Thursday night. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has no problem blitzing from all directions and, with the way the Packers offensive line played in the preseason, this could be a major problem for the Packers. Rodgers will have to be on his toes and looking for his underneath routes, tight ends will need to block well in the backfield, and, simply put, the offensive line will need to step up.
On the other end, Dom Capers is sure to bring an assortment of blitz packages against the Saints’ high-powered passing attack. Drew Brees is just as good as Rodgers at getting the ball out of his hand, and a pair of pass-catching, check down running backs in rookie Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas means the Packers will need to get to Brees quickly.
Whoever gets more pressure on their opponent could walk away with a win.
The health of Mike Neal
The Green Bay Packers picked up their first win of the preseason Friday night, defeating the Arizona Cardinals 28-20 at Lambeau Field. There were plenty of individual winners and losers from the game, but here are five storylines to take from the Packers’ home preseason opener.
Chastin West: Worthy of a roster spot?
Entering the season, it was almost a guarantee that the Packers would keep five wide receivers. Chastin West is making the Packers’ brass think twice.
West hauled in five catches for 134 yards Friday night, including a 97-yard touchdown grab from Matt Flynn in the fourth quarter. It was just another chapter in what has been an impressive preseason showing from the first year receiver out of Fresno State, who now stands a chance at making the 53-man roster.
There is realistically no way West would stick on the Packers’ practice squad, as another team would give him a look on their roster, so the team will have a decision to make.
Should West stick, a player such as Quinn Johnson or one of Tom Crabtree/Ryan Taylor would have a much tougher time making the roster. While the Packers will be fine at wide receiver without West, he is turning into quite a talent the Packers could use down the road as emergency insurance (Donald Driver’s age, Jordy Nelson 2012 FA).
Defensive Line Wearing Thin; Raji moves outside
One of the early headlines coming out of Packers training camp involves a tight end who fans did not get to see much of in 2010.
But it isn’t Jermichael Finley.
Instead, fifth round draft choice D.J. Williams has been showing off his impressive ball skills in seven-on-seven segments and individual drills, making fans believe that general manager Ted Thompson has once again struck gold in the middle rounds of the draft.
There’s no denying that Finley is a lock to start as long as he is healthy, but the departure of free agent Donald Lee and no apparent back-up could mean that Williams, a junior from Arkansas, could contribute in 2011.
Wondering if Williams defines Ted Thompson’s mantra of “Packer people”? ESPN’s E:60 ran a segment on Williams portraying his extremely difficult childhood. Growing up, Williams dealt with a drug-inflicted, abusive father and eventually escaped with his mother and sister to Arkansas, where the family of three began a new life.
Chances are most of you will read this sometime on Tuesday, but if you’re up early enough and look to the East at approximately 6:46 a.m., you’ll notice the sun has indeed risen in the state of Wisconsin. True, if the Packers were a centipede they would have shot themselves in every foot Monday night in a loss to the Bears, but don’t think for a second isn’t one of the premier teams in the NFL.
18 penalties, pitiful special teams play and costly mistakes down the stretch will get you eight wins and a comfy seat in your home for the playoffs, but the Packers are undoubtedly better than what they showed tonight, and the optimism for this team’s potential should be as high as it was when they took the field Monday night.
First things first, the Packers went on the road into a divisional game against their biggest rival, a surprisingly efficient 2-0 Chicago team, and were in serious position to put the game away in the final two minutes. Aaron Rodgers, who continues to prove why he one of the top four quarterbacks in the NFL, was surgical in the second half and had the look in his eye that he was going to lead the Packers into field goal range.
Yes football fans, it’s that time of the year again. The world’s most popular fantasy sport, although I’d beg to differ on what’s actually the best, is sending out their initial draft packages, mock drafts, and fantasy advice to get ready for the 2010 season. I have to admit I don’t spend much time on fantasy football because of my love for the Packers, so why not put a Packers’ spin on ESPN.com’s first fantasy football mock draft?
The Packers had six players and a defense represented in the draft (the Vikings had seven and a defense), and my fanhood believes there could have have been one or two more in there. Standard rules applied when making selections, so no individual defensive players (IDPs) and only 10 teams (most fantasy leagues will have 12 or even 14).
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB: Drafted in 2nd round, (12th overall)
After a superb preseason, expectations for the Green Bay Packers could not have been higher. Three weeks into the regular season, the team stands at 2-1 after wins over the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, and a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. In those three weeks, there have been many positive things to get excited about, some struggles that need to be fixed, and some ugly things that are getting the Packers by in easy games, but will not as the season goes on and games become tougher.
Today, we will look at the Packers ugly personnel through three weeks. After that, we will look at schemes and intangibles that have been good, bad, and ugly for the Packers. Enjoy and make sure to check out all parts of the segments!
Monday: Good Personnel Edition
Tuesday: Bad Personnel Edition
Let me preface this by saying that the “ugly” players include performances that have not helped out the Packers much this season and have played below expectations. However, these performances have not hurt the Packers enough to warrant putting them in the “bad” category.
Greg Jennings: Fresh off an off-season that saw him work out with Larry Fitzgerald and receive a contract extension, Jennings has had a tough time being a consistent target to Aaron Rodgers. As a proven number one receiver, he has received double coverage looks often and has seen his receptions and yards dip.
For now, it has not hurt the Packers as much because Donald Driver has stepped up his performance and seen more targets from Rodgers because he is usually in single coverage. However, if the Packers’ offense is going to get back to where it was last season, Jennings is going to have to work to get open and spread the field. He has made the big play when necessary but over the course of a season that it not going to work.
Ryan Grant: For whatever reason, Grant has not looked the same as he did in 2007 over the past two seasons, and it has hurt the run game considerably. The Packers have committed to Grant as their starter, but currently injured Brandon Jackson is looking over his shoulder at that starting spot.
He is a combination of a power back and a speed back, but lately that speed has disappeared from his game and he does not cut back like he used to. When he hits holes, there is hesitation and you never get the feeling that he is going to break off a huge run. His long rush is just 17 yards and he is averaging just 3.7 yards per rush.
Some of the blame can be put on the consistency of the offensive line but Grant still needs to step up. It has not killed the Packers because Grant has not had an atrocious season (14th in the league in rushing) but getting him back to that 2007 form will be key for the run game moving forward.
Jeremy Kapinos: Kapinos punted his way onto the roster but the punt team unit as a whole has been less than stellar this season. His average punt is 45.4 yards, ranking 15th in the league, but his net punt is just 35.9 yards, ranking second to last in the league.
Some of those woes can be attributed to bad coverage, but Kapinos’ hang time is an issue as he has induced just one fair catch. On average, the Packers’ punt unit is giving up the second most yards per return at just under 17 yards a return, and it must change so that the defense does not always have such a short field.
Jermichael Finley: After a spectacular preseason that saw him slice up defenses at will, Finley has been quiet to start the year. He has seen a fair amount of snaps as the Packers have gone with two tight end sets this season, but his targets and receptions have not added up.
Starter Donald Lee had caught nine passes and been targeted 11 times to Finley’s five receptions and nine targets, although Finley has more receiving yards (62) than Lee (46). When Finley went on his tear in the preseason, everyone seemed to forget about the value of Lee, who has the highest catch-per-target on the team.
Still, Finley becoming a vertical threat in the Packers’ offense would do wonders for what the offense could do. Finley can line up wide against a cornerback and use his size, or can set up on the line and use his speed on a linebacker. Because of the great depth the Packers have at wide receiver as well as Lee’s strong start, his performance has not hurt the Packers as much. If he can pick things up like he did in the preseason, it would be a huge lift.
The Packers will look to win their third consecutive preseason game when they take on the Arizona Cardinals tomorrow night in Tempe, Ariz.
In their first preseason game, the Packers pitched a shutout against the Cleveland Browns in a dominating defensive performance, and Aaron Rodgers threw a 52-yard touchdown to Donald Driver. The next week, the Packers took down the Buffalo Bills, 31-21 at Lambeau Field, in another impressive performance.
It has been an outstanding start for a team looking to turn a new leaf after a disappointing six-win season. The defense has been fast, the offense has been crisp, and the second- and third-team players have done excellent as well.
As well as the team played in their first two games, their first real test as a whole will come when the Packers come to Arizona to take on Kurt Warner and the Cardinals. Without further ado, here are five things to look for as the Packers enter their third preseason game.
1. What impact will Nick Barnett have if he takes the field for the first time this season?
The Packers’ best linebacker is expected to make his first appearance of the season against the Cardinals, and he can’t come soon enough. Desmond Bishop is having one of the best preseasons of anyone on the team and is making a case to start this season, but if Barnett is back and healthy then he will be on the field.
After missing all of training camp and the first two preseason games recovering from ACL surgery, Barnett will get his first taste of the new 3-4 defense being instilled this season. With the way the defense has looked thus far, the addition of Barnett can only make it stronger.
Clay Matthews III and Jeremy Thompson are out for Friday’s game, but if Barnett is able to play then it will be a step in the right direction.
2. Playing with the first team offense, can Tyrell Sutton continue to produce like he did against the Browns and Bills?
Mike McCarthy has said that undrafted rookie Tyrell Sutton will get reps with the first team offense on Friday, in hopes of continuing his path towards making the team this season.
Against the Browns, Sutton carried the ball 16 times for 91 yards and went for 49 yards and a touchdown against the Bills. He has looked quick and powerful in the team’s first two games, and will look to continue that success on Friday.
The test will be much bigger as Sutton will no longer be going up against second and third team defenses, but will instead go up against a solid Cardinals run defense.
It is still a good sign that Sutton will get reps with the first team offense, who seems to have the upper hand on the third string running back spot over Deshawn Wynn and Craig Lumpkin. Tomorrow will tell a lot about how good Sutton actually is, but management must have seen something to give him this shot.
3. How will the Packers’ secondary fare against the Cardinals’ passing attack?
In the first two preseason games, the Browns and Bills combined for 405 yards passing, one touchdown, and six interceptions. It was an impressive showing by the Packers’ pass defense, and while no one is going to mistake Trent Edwards and Brady Quinn for Tom Brady, stats are stats.
However, the first big test will come when Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald take the field against Charles Woodson and co. Anquan Boldin is not expected to play Friday due to a tweaked hamstring, but the offense is still high-powered even without him.
Steve Breaston and Early Doucet give the Cardinals one of the deepest wide receiving corps in the league and will give the Packers a big test, and Tim Hightower and Chris Wells are solid out of the backfield as well.
Al Harris, Charles Woodson, and Nick Collins will have their hands full, but if the first two weeks were any indication, they should be just fine.
4. With the offensive line starters set in stone, how will they look together?
After the Bills game, head coach Mike McCarthy awarded Allen Barbre, Josh Sitton, and Jason Spitz spots on the line along with Daryn Colledge and Chad Clifton.
Barbre beat out Breno Giacomini in the position battle after a dominating performance against Buffalo. Giacomini’s whiff on a Bills defensive end that led to quarterback Matt Lynn’s injury did not help his cause either.
Spitz beat out last year’s center Scott Wells and opened up a spot for Sitton at right guard. None of the moves made by McCarthy did not come as much of a surprise, but hopefully the chemistry will pick up as the same five guys get more and more reps with each other.
5. Can tight end Jermichael Finley continue his excellent play?
Finley was one of the five breakout players of the year for the Packers, and in the first two preseason games he has not disappointed. He has been an absolute matchup problem for teams with his size and speed and has caught five passes for 64 yards.
His speed makes him too quick for most linebackers, while his size makes him too big for most safeties. If he can be another legitimate weapon for Aaron Rodgers, the offense adds another dimension that it has not had for quite some time.
Donald Lee has done a nice job blocking in the first two games, and Finley will be an excellent compliment that will allow the Packers to use and pass out of two-tight end sets.
As a team, the Green Bay Packers will be looking to reverse their fortunes from last year as the 2009 season approaches. With a brand new defensive scheme in place and another year of experience under the offense’s belt, the Packers will look to improve on their 2008 campaign that saw them win just six games.
Looking to help that cause are five players who are ready to break out of the shadows and become impact players for the Packers this year.
1. Jermichael Finley, Tight End
When he was drafted out of the University of Texas, the one knock on Finley was that inexperience would plague him. After playing just two seasons for the Longhorns, Finley was drafted in the third round of the 2008 draft (91st overall) as the seventh tight end.
In his rookie season, Finley was used sparingly on offense and ended the year with just six catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. In a November game against the Tennessee Titans, he was critical of quarterback Aaron Rodgers on a failed fourth down pass, saying Rodgers “didn’t throw it good at all”.
After the comments, Finley went back to a much smaller role in the offense for the rest of the season and caught some heat for the words.
One could describe those comments as a microcosm of Finley’s rookie season: immaturity. Just 21 years old, Finley was a raw talent (4.82 forty-yard dash and 35 inch vertical) who was more of an athlete than a football player.
A year later, Finley is back as a complete player who is consistently making plays during practices and is pushing to be the starting tight end this year. He has improved his blocking skills ten fold and head coach Mike McCarthy says he feels comfortable using him in just about any set.
If Finley is able to overtake current starter Donald Lee in the offense, he will add a much more athletic and bigger option for Aaron Rodgers that can stretch the field.
2. Deshawn Wynn, Running Back
Since he was drafted in 2007, Deshawn Wynn has had problems staying on the football field. In his rookie season, he was pegged as the starter but a shoulder injury caused him to miss the team’s last nine games. Last season, Wynn was waived and later assigned to the practice squad for the Packers.
He was brought back to the 53 man roster in week six, but a calf injury caused him to miss six games once he was back. In the limited action he saw towards the end of last year, he rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown in the season finale against the Lions.
This season, Wynn is fully healthy and ready to contribute regularly to the running game. The ex-Gator will battle Brandon Jackson for the third down running back spot, but position coach Edgar Bennett has been singing Wynn’s praises all through camp.
Wynn has all the physical tools to succeed at the NFL level, but staying healthy will be the one obstacle he must overcome. If he is able to do so, look for him to make a large impact on the run game and screen game.
3. Jeremey Thompson, Outside Linebacker
When it was announced that the Green Bay Packers would be moving to a 3-4 defense followed by the hiring of Dom Capers, the first player that came to mind as someone who will love this change was Thompson.
Drafted out of Wake Forest as a defensive end, Thompson started just three games late in the season for the Packers and only appeared in nine games as whole, but showed a ton of speed and quickness that made him the perfect specimen for a switch to a 3-4 linebacker.
At 6′4″, 270 lbs., Thompson is the perfect fit for an outside linebacker in Capers’ scheme and will fight for a starting spot with rookie Clay Matthews III. While Matthews is now seeing reps with the first team, Thompson still figures to see a ton of playing time this season.
He will need to play more physical at the point of the attack, something Matthews does very well, but his speed and quickness combine with his frame to make a freak of an athlete that the Packers will somehow use this season.
4. Allen Barbre, Right Tackle
After Mark Tauscher went down with a torn ACL last year, it was apparent that his time in Green Bay was running low. Still a few months away from being 100 percent, the Packers have not re-signed the former Wisconsin Badger and have decided to move on.
Battling for the right tackle position this year will be Allen Barbre and Breno Giacomini. Barbre, the third year tackle out of Missouri Southern State, has not seen much action in his first couple years with the Packers but is now the front runner to win the RT spot.
He played tackle all throughout college but was immediately moved to tackle when the Packers drafted him in the fourth round of the 2007 Draft. Now, he is being asked to move back to tackle and early returns say he is succeeding there.
Dominant in the run game, Barbre will need to be more consistent (just as the whole O-line will need to be) if he wants to keep his position on the field. He is smaller than Giacomini by three inches and seven pounds but moves a little quicker. This is important in the zone blocking scheme the Packers run and is one of the reasons he is in line to win the job.
If he wins the job this year, Barbre will be the right tackle of the future for the Green and Gold.
5. Jordy Nelson, Wide Receiver
One of the story lines coming into training camp this year was the battle the Packers had going on for the third wide receiver position. Second-year receiver Jordy Nelson and James Jones were to battle for the spot and thus far the two have both performed well in camp.
While both have different skill sets, Nelson’s rough demeanor and soft hands make him a candidate for the last break out player.
Last season, Nelson caught 33 balls for 366 yards and scored on two occasions. His blocking was outstanding and he dropped the fewest passes on the team. This season, he will see more playing time and hopefully have created even more chemistry with Aaron Rodgers.
As a part of one of the deepest receiving corps in the league, Nelson will join Donald Driver and Greg Jennings on the outside, which should free up some room for Nelson to run free. At 6′3″, Nelson has the body of a tight end with track speed that makes him a rare talent.
This spot on the list easily could have gone to James Jones, but Nelson has the potential to become better than Jones if he continues to work on his skills. Time will tell, but Nelson looks to be the replacement for Driver, and a good one at that.