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Eddie Lacy and the Packers are aiming for a fourth straight NFC division title
Mike McCarthy not only issued the proclamation: He told everyone how they should write it, too.
“We’re going to be a better defense this year,” the Green Bay Packers coach announced after the draft in May. “You can write that in big letters.”
Well, if you insist. THE PACKERS ARE GOING TO BE A BETTER DEFENSE THIS YEAR.
This was more than just bluster by the head coach. If the Packers are going to return to the Super Bowl after winning three straight division titles — but managing just one playoff victory — in the three years since they won Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy knows it’s imperative that their defense, which ranked tied for 24th in scoring (26.8 ppg) and 25th in yards allowed (372.3 ypg), must improve. While he kept veteran coordinator Dom Capers, McCarthy has been more involved in the defense, scaling back the playbook, trying to use more personnel groupings but fewer schemes.
To improve the personnel, GM Ted Thompson signed veteran defensive end Julius Peppers. Released by Chicago in a cost-cutting move, the 34-year-old Peppers will play a hybrid end/outside linebacker position. The club also re-signed three key defensive free agents (No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields, pass-rusher Mike Neal and nose tackle B.J. Raji) and picked four defensive players in the draft, led by first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a safety from Alabama, at No. 21.
Whether the changes in approach and personnel allow McCarthy to deliver on his promise could very well decide the Packers’ 2014 fate.
It’s hard to imagine the Packers, who’ve done so much right in building a perennial contender, bungling a position worse than they did the backup quarterback spot last year. And wouldn’t you know it, for the first time in two decades, they lost their starting quarterback for an extended period of time when Aaron Rodgers suffered a fractured left collarbone. The team wound up starting four quarterbacks, and only the re-signing of Matt Flynn, Rodgers’ backup from 2008-11, saved the season. Rodgers’ history of durability — he’d missed only one start due to injury before last season — should mean a return to form as one of the league’s top quarterbacks, and with Flynn and Scott Tolzien in the fold from Day 1 of the offseason program, the Packers should be better prepared if disaster strikes again.
If Rodgers does stay healthy, the offense could reach unprecedented heights because the Packers finally have a potent run game to pair with their aerial attack, thanks to running back Eddie Lacy, who ran for 1,178 yards. Because Lacy suffered a concussion one carry into a Week 2 game vs. Washington and missed the following week, and Rodgers broke his collarbone on the opening series against Chicago on Nov. 4, the pair played only six full regular-season games together. If both stay healthy, defenses won’t be able to play constant two-shell coverages to prevent Rodgers’ big-play passes as they did in 2012, and they won’t be able to load the box with eight or nine defenders as they did last year against Lacy when Rodgers was out. If Lacy does get nicked, the Packers have depth. They re-signed James Starks and get DuJuan Harris back from injury. Johnathan Franklin, last year's fourth-round pick was released in June when it was determined the neck injury he suffered in 2013 would prevent from continuing his football careeer.
Two years ago, the Packers were so deep at receiver that the franchise’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, an aging Donald Driver, was relegated to sixth on the depth chart. Now, it’s Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and some youngsters. Nelson is coming off career highs in receptions (85) and yards (1,314), while Cobb missed 10 games with a leg injury. Nelson signed a four-year, $39 million contract extension in July and Cobb has said he's ready to prove he's worthy of his own lucrative deal. After them, it’s third-year man Jarrett Boykin, who stepped up with Cobb out (49 catches, 681 yards), as the No. 3, then a mix of unproven returnees and draft picks, led by second-rounder Davante Adams.
Jermichael Finley’s career-threatening neck injury and spinal fusion surgery put his future in doubt and left the Packers vulnerable at tight end. While Andrew Quarless, who took over after Finley’s injury, was re-signed, McCarthy’s offense is optimized when it has a big, athletic pass-catching tight end. If the Packers don’t have Finley, McCarthy will have to get creative.
For the fourth time in four years, the Packers will have a different opening-day starter at center. Rookie Corey Linsley appears to be the guy, largely due to a knee fracture suffered by JC Tretter in the third preseason game. Tretter is expected to miss several weeks. Linsley will be sandwiched by proven veteran guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy has always stressed the importance of the center position in adjustments at the line of scrimmage, so there could be some growing pains or the coaching staff may have to shuffle positions. Second-year left tackle David Bakhtiari figures to only get better, while Bryan Bulaga moves back to right tackle after finishing each of the past two seasons on injured reserve. Besides Tretter's injury, the line must also function with out key reserve Don Barclay, who tore his ACL early in training camp.
The team has selected five defensive linemen in the past three drafts. After a ho-hum rookie year, 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones must make a big jump in Year 2, as Mike Daniels (a line-leading 6.5 sacks) did last season. B.J. Raji was brought back on a one-year, $4 million prove-it deal and slated to start at nose tackle, but he is likely out for the season after tearing his biceps in the third preseason game.
Star outside linebacker Clay Matthews broke his right thumb twice and had two surgeries to correct it — the second being more invasive. The Packers’ defense simply isn’t the same without Matthews. If healthy, he and Peppers might have a field day. Inside, steady A.J. Hawk remains the unit’s leader after showing a much-needed spike in big plays (five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble) last season.
The addition of Clinton-Dix should not only solidify a position where departed M.D. Jennings started 17 games, but he should also help Morgan Burnett, whose first season after signing a four-year, $24.75 million extension was a disappointment. Clinton-Dix figures to be the center fielder more often than Burnett. At cornerback, re-signing Shields (four years, $39 million) was offseason priority No. 1. Tramon Williams’ second-half renaissance last year re-solidified the position.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby followed his worst NFL season with his best, making 33-of-37 field-goal attempts (89.2 percent), while Tim Masthay has become one of the league’s top cold-weather punters. The return game remains up in the air, though Micah Hyde was a godsend after return specialist Jeremy Ross was prematurely cut.
The Pack won’t be a chic Super Bowl pick, and that’s how Rodgers likes it. “They’re going to be talking about Seattle and Denver and New England and some of these teams that rebuild and reload,” Rodgers says. “We kind of like it when we’re a little bit of an afterthought. That makes us dangerous.” Look for the Packers to win their fourth straight North crown, and if they can lick their annual injury epidemic, they’ll be in the title conversation.