Offseason Breakdown: Green Bay Packers
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
It was not that Green Bay went unchallenged en route to a 15-1 regular season record. It's just that, a stunning Week 15 loss at Kansas City aside, they kept finding a way to come up with a huge offensive play or a timely defensive stop to keep them in the win column.
That is, until the playoffs rolled around, and the Giants bullied Green Bay all over Lambeau Field, 37-20.
The loss was a crushing one for a Packers team that looked destined to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy home. In response, they added a new center, and some much-improved depth on the defensive line -- the additions of Anthony Hargrove, Philip Merling and draft pick Jerel Worthy to that final group could vastly improve Green Bay's ability to hold its own up front.
But this is "Titletown," where anything short of a championship is a colossal letdown. So, can the Packers script a happier ending to 2012?
2011 Record: 15-1 (first place, NFC North; lost to Giants in NFC divisional round)
Key Subtractions: T Chad Clifton, S Nick Collins, RB Ryan Grant, C Scott Wells
Team Strengths: QB, WR, TE, DL, OLB
Team Weaknesses: OT, CB, S
Three Things to Watch:
1. Concerns linger in the secondary: The Packers allowed more yards through the air than any other NFL team last season (4,796). Some of that had to do with Green Bay's offense constantly putting the opposition in a hole -- Packers' foes threw 637 times, also the highest number in the league -- but most of it boiled down to Green Bay not being able to cover people.
That issue haunted them in a hugely disappointing playoff loss to the Giants, in which Eli Manning tossed three touchdowns (including a first-half-ending Hail Mary) and finished with 330 yards.
The upside of all those passing attempts was that the opportunistic Packers secondary also paced the NFL with 31 regular-season interceptions, 23 more than Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn threw combined. But Green Bay absolutely wants more from its defensive backfield this season, even though the starting pieces are the same as in 2011.
Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah combined for 19 interceptions last season, and they'll be tasked with the majority of the work again this time around. Keep an eye on rookie CB Casey Heyward, who could wind up seeing big minutes as the Packers search for answers.
2. Is James Starks ready for more?: Starks and Ryan Grant split carries almost right down the middle last season, with Grant toting the rock 134 times and Starks 133. But the Packers let Grant walk in free agency and appear set to give Starks a heavier workload this time around.
Odds are, though, that Starks will see the majority of the action. He did have 29 catches last season compared to 19 for Grant, so Green Bay knows it can count on him out of the backfield (even if his yards-per-catch average was just 7.4, nearly seven yards lower than Grant's). The Packers also live and die with their passing attack most weeks, and can milk the clock through the air the way that many teams do it on the ground.
Still, finding a better balance would only help, and Starks will be the man asked to make that happen.
3. How will the Scott Wells-for-Jeff Saturday swap impact the offense?: It has been 53 games since Wells wasn't a starter on the Packers' offensive line, and he started 13 games or more each of the past six seasons. But Wells opted to bail on Green Bay in favor of St. Louis this offseason, forcing his former team to reach out to Saturday.
Saturday, 36, didn't get a farewell press conference when he left Indianapolis, but he was a mainstay there for nearly as long as Peyton Manning. Saturday started 188 games for the Colts, including all 16 in 10 different years, and he hasn't missed a week since 2008.
It will be quite a change for the Packers to have a different guy snapping the ball, but the difference might be negligible -- Wells and Saturday were the fourth- and fifth-best centers in the league in 2011, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus. Green Bay needs a sturdier performance out of its offensive line this season, and everything starts in the middle, especially for a team that utilizes the shotgun as much as Green Bay does.
Outlook: There's no dancing around it: The Packers are the team to beat in the NFC North and, quite possibly, the entire conference. Say what you will about the secondary -- and, as we saw, that's a big Achilles heel for this team -- but the Rodgers-led offense should be near-unstoppable again with Starks, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and others back in the mix.
Green Bay cannot and should not ignore the threats that Detroit and Chicago might be able to pose in the division, but barring an injury to Rodgers (remember, no Flynn to back him up this year), it's hard to see even a defensive-deprived Packers team losing more than four or five games.