NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: Green Bay Packers
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The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl just three seasons ago, so pretending in any way that this is a team in crisis would be erroneous.
Yet, it's the 2009, '11 and '12 playoff exits that the Packers are concerned with as a new season approaches. Each of those years, Green Bay's untimely demise fell mostly at the feet of its defense -- Arizona put up 51 on the Packers in an OT win during the '09 playoffs, the Giants dropped them 37-20 in 2011 and the 49ers ran them ragged for a convincing 45-31 final last season.
You can count on the Packers to score points most weeks, one way or another. They can thank the presence of Aaron Rodgers, arguably the best QB in the league, for that consistent luxury.
The question remains, though: Will this team be able to get the stops it needs, when push comes to shove?
• Biggest storyline: Did the tweaks on defense work?
Green Bay's D landed 11th in both points and yards allowed last season, so it was not a total wasteland on that side of the ball. The Packers were exposed badly, though, in a playoff loss to San Francisco, in which the Colin Kaepernick-led 49ers offense made them look like they were running in quicksand.
Rather than start from scratch after that embarrassing setback, the Packers are hoping that a couple personnel changes could pay dividends. One of those "changes" is the return of Nick Perry. Green Bay's first-round pick in 2012, Perry had a so-so first six games before suffering a season-ending wrist injury. The second is the arrival of rookie Datone Jones, who should drop right into a defensive end spot in Green Bay's 3-4 front.
Both Perry and Jones ought to provide an uptick for the Packers' athleticism quotient on defense and, if all goes according to plan, will limit the pressure placed on Clay Matthews, who was asked to do too much on his own in 2012.
The secondary also returns intact for Green Bay. It is a relatively young group, buoyed last year by the impressive play of cornerback Casey Heyward and safety M.D. Jennings. But the backline can only do so much if the Packers' front seven falters. The success of those tweaks on the D-line and at linebacker may make or break the Packers down the line.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Running back.
Little question that this is the spot to watch as the preseason unfolds in Green Bay. The Packers return three of their top four rushers from 2012 (not counting Aaron Rodgers, who actually finished second on the team with 259 yards). Normally, that would be a positive; here, it's a reminder that Alex Green led this team with a measly 459 yards on the ground last season.
So, Green Bay spent a second-round pick on Alabama RB Eddie Lacy and a fourth-round choice on UCLA's Johnathan Franklin. That duo may wind up forming a 1-2 punch in the backfield, but Green, DuJuan Harris and James Starks all remain in the mix. Starks even has drummed up some chatter early in camp with a series of impressive showings.
The Packers know they can win without a dominant run game -- they had the 24th-best rushing attack during a 2010 Super Bowl season and finished 27th in going 15-1 the next year. Drafting Lacy and Franklin still indicates a desire to pound the rock more reliably. Now, Green Bay just has to figure out which back will be getting the ball.
• New face, new place: Johnny Jolly.
Technically, this is more of an "old face in the same place" story, but let's go with it. Jolly last played for the Packers in 2009, when he was a 16-game starter. He spent the next three seasons dealing with multiple drug-related arrests and what was an "indefinite" suspension handed down by the NFL.
The league finally reinstated the 30-year-old Jolly in March, then he promptly rejoined the Packers, who still held Jolly's rights after tendering him a contract as a restricted free agent three years ago.
Jolly, 340 pounds at last check, will have to battle for a roster spot with the Packers. But the door appears to be at least slightly open, as Green Bay tries to bulk up its defensive-line depth. (The selection of Jones in the draft helped there quite a bit.) Given how few additions came to Green Bay via free agency, Jolly's re-emergence stands out as a story to watch.
• Impact rookie: David Bakhtiari, offensive lineman.
Jones, Lacy and Franklin all could be major contributors for the Packers this season. Bakhtiari's potential to develop into an important cog could come as a much bigger upset.
The 109th-overall pick in this year's draft, Bakhtiari was a left tackle at Colorado but worked out for teams at guard and center before the draft. He's jumped into the mix at right tackle, where the Packers are searching for some sort of answer.
Marshall Newhouse had first crack at that starting gig, with Bryan Bulaga sliding to left tackle. However, Newhouse struggled on Rodgers' blindside in 2012 and is far from a sure bet to stay with the first-team offense into the regular season. Bakhtiari, Don Barclay and Derek Sherrod all figure to see time there during the preseason. And Bakhtiari probably is the most athletic of the group, which could make him the choice, especially as Green Bay tries to awaken its rushing attack.
• Looking at the schedule: This is ... not going to be easy.
The Packers won the division last season on the strength of a 5-1 mark against their NFC North rivals. Repeating that performance, with Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota all looking relatively tough, will be difficult.
Finding wins outside the division may not be all that easy, either. Green Bay opens at San Francisco, site of its playoff implosion, in a game that will test the Packers' defense right away. They host Washington the next week (with RGIII looking likely to be in the lineup), then visit AFC North contender Cincinnati before an early bye week.
During their 13-games-in-13-weeks close, Green Bay has to travel to Baltimore, New York to play the Giants, Dallas and all three NFC North spots, and they will host Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Should the Packers reach double-digit wins for the fifth consecutive season, they will have earned it.
They'll also be a dangerous playoff team, if they get there. The defense remains full of playmakers; and the offense, despite losing WR Greg Jennings, is loaded with weapons. [si_cvp_video id="video_EBD6EC32-65E7-9221-216E-171EC341ED62"]