NFL Team Previews: Green Bay Packers

Over the last two seasons the Green Bay Packers have won the Super Bowl, turned in a 15-1 regular season and produced a league MVP, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the award last season. But a playoff loss to the New York Giants sticks in the craw as the start of the 2012 regular season draws closer. TheSportsNotebook previews the Packers and their chances of a second Super Bowl title in three years…

OFFENSE: The offensive line was a problem last year, and the inability to provide consistent protection for Rodgers meant the play-calling had to gear toward quick releases to the array of receivers the quarterback and head coach Mike McCarthy have at their disposal. Fortunately for Green Bay, McCarthy is the kind of tactician who can get receivers open quickly and Rodgers is the type of quarterback who can make fast decisions and get the ball where it needs to be. But it would be nice to see what this offense could do is Rodgers could take his time and look down the field more frequently.

To that end, Green Bay signed 37-year-old free agent center Jeff Saturday, the prototype of the savvy veteran after his long career playing with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. As to the rest of the line, the Packers will have to pretend they’re in a Republican presidential primary and run to the right. That’s where Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton are an excellent tackle-guard tandem. The left flank, by contrast, is vulnerable.

Wide receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley are nursing injuries, though each are expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. The Packers get production from a lot of wide receivers, notably Jordy Nelson, but I think Jennings and Finley are the only two who could be successful in any system with any quarterback. The rest, including Nelson, are the product of having #12 being the one who’s delivering the ball.  For the running game, the Packers signed Cedric Benson, a move I think will work. Benson may no longer be a top-tier back but in a system where he won’t be keyed on and the right side of the line able to clear a path, he should at least require defenses to respect the run.

DEFENSE: Green Bay drafted USC’s Nick Perry to pair up with Clay Matthews at the outside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme. If Perry is as good as a lot of observers think he is, this would be the dream tandem in a 3-4, as both can wreak havoc rushing the passer. Matthews, the defensive equivalent of Rodgers, is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and a candidate to make a game-changing play every time he takes the field. The inside of the linebacking group isn’t great, but A.J. Hawk is functionable and up front nose tackle B.J. Raji does his job of occupying blockers and freeing up the linebackers as well as anyone.

Defensive end is a weak point, though in a 3-4 that’s not a killer problem. I would expect to see rookie Jerel Worthy get a shot before too long even if he’s currently listed as second string. The secondary is going through some shuffling. Charles Woodson is shifting from corner to strong safety, a move that makes sense as Woodson gets older and it’s easy to see him freelancing to make big plays and providing strong run support. It’s replacing Williams that’s a big problem right now, as Jarrett Bush is a big liability. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has options to cover that up—Tramon Williams is a tremendous lockdown corner on the other side, and Capers can have young, improving free safety Morgan Burnett shade to Bush’s side of the field. But if this weakness doesn’t bite Green Bay, it will be more testament to  Capers’ cover-up ability than Bush’s cover skills.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 12—I hate numbers like these, because I really feel like there’s no choice but to go Under. Yes, I can see the Packers winning 13 games. I might even pick them to do so when the final NFL predictions are made on September 4, the day before the season starts. But an Over/Under play is about percentages and maneuvering room and I just don’t think you ever bet an NFL team, under any circumstances to do better than 12-4 when the season starts and that record only gets me a push. So I’ve got to do the Under here.