1 Green Bay PACKERS

Their prospects are Super—if they can see their former icon as just another QB
September 05, 2010

AFTER THE Packers were swept by the Vikings in two emotionally charged games last season, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers came away thinking the team had been too distracted by his predecessor, Brett Favre.

"The guys in the locker room did a good job staying focused, but there were people in the organization that didn't treat it as another game, when it was another game," Rodgers says. "I think we put too much emphasis on those two."

Says coach Mike McCarthy, "If [Aaron] felt it, then obviously it existed. I probably had them too high for that [first] game. I didn't feel that in the second game—maybe outside the building, [with Favre] coming back to Lambeau with all the buildup—but I'd agree with that going into the first game."

Had the Packers won either of those Minnesota matchups, they would have hosted a divisional playoff game as NFC North champions instead of hitting the road as a wild card. In the latter role they lost a 51--45 overtime crusher in Arizona—"hardest loss I've ever had," says running back Ryan Grant. In many ways the Packers were two teams last season: the one that started 4--4 and dropped two to the Vikes, and the one that finished 7--1 and looked like a world-beater.

Part of last season's sluggish start can be linked to the defense's switch from a 4--3 to a 3--4 scheme. Expect a quicker start in 2010 with another year of coordinator Dom Capers's system under the players' belts. "We tried to come out fast and furious as an offense early in [2009] to give our defense time to develop, and the sacks just killed us," McCarthy says. "We had so many negative plays. Once we got that corrected, we did some great things on offense, and the defense came around and played good football. Last year was a learning experience that you can draw from, the positive and the negative. [But] this is a new team."

Green Bay's strong finishing kick has created a Super Bowl aura around the team for 2010, but a few questions remain. Will the offensive line, which gave up 51 sacks, hold up? Can the secondary, with Charles Woodson (age 33) and Al Harris (35) at the corners, stay healthy? Can the Pack overcome its Favre complex?

Green Bay was typically quiet in the off-season, keeping its core mostly intact, shying away from the free-agent market and adding pieces through the draft. First-round pick Bryan Bulaga, an offensive tackle from Iowa, had such a terrific training camp and preseason that he was pushing for a starting job at left guard. The next two picks, defensive end Mike Neal out of Purdue and safety Morgan Burnett from Georgia Tech, are also expected to contribute, with Burnett slated to begin the season as a starter in place of the injured Atari Bigby. Finding young talent and getting it on the field has been Green Bay's dominant philosophy under McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson.

"We are a draft-and-develop team," McCarthy says. "It doesn't mean we don't ever want to go out into free agency, but we feel if we're drafting and developing them the right way, our team will improve."

Rodgers, 26, is the prime example of the Packer Way: He slipped to No. 24 in the 2005 draft and is now an elite player in this golden age of quarterbacks. In his two years as a starter Rodgers has thrown for 8,472 yards, with 58 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. "He's in total control of our offense," McCarthy says. "We've given him all the responsibilities. There hasn't been a quarterback that I've coached or coordinated that has as much responsibility as he does."

McCarthy, of course, used to coach Favre. For the Pack, winning the NFC North and starting a Super Bowl run may come down to how they fare against him.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH MIKE MCCARTHY

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 6

QB AARON RODGERS

G 16

ATT 541

COMP 350

PCT 64.7

YARDS 4,434

TD 30

INT 7

RATING 103.2

RB RYAN GRANT

G 16

ATT 282

YARDS 1,253

AVG 4.4

REC 25

YARDS 197

AVG 7.9

TTD 11

FB JOHN KUHN

G 14

ATT 8

YARDS 18

AVG 2.3

REC 7

YARDS 47

AVG 6.7

TTD 3

WR GREG JENNINGS

G 16

REC 68

YARDS 1,113

TTD 4

WR DONALD DRIVER

G 16

REC 70

YARDS 1,061

TTD 6

TE JERMICHAEL FINLEY

G 13

REC 55

YARDS 676

TTD 5

LT CHAD CLIFTON

G 12

HT 6'5"

WT 320

LG DARYN COLLEDGE

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 308

C SCOTT WELLS

G 15

HT 6'2"

WT 300

RG JOSH SITTON

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 318

RT MARK TAUSCHER

G 8

HT 6'3"

WT 320

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 2

DE RYAN PICKETT

G 13

TACKLES 33

SACKS 0

INT 0

NT B.J. RAJI

G 14

TACKLES 25

SACKS 1

INT 0

DE CULLEN JENKINS

G 16

TACKLES 32

SACKS 4½

INT 1

LB BRAD JONES

G 14

TACKLES 33

SACKS 4

INT 0

LB A.J. HAWK

G 16

TACKLES 89

SACKS 1

INT 2

LB NICK BARNETT

G 16

TACKLES 105

SACKS 4

INT 0

LB CLAY MATTHEWS

G 16

TACKLES 51

SACKS 10

INT 0

CB CHARLES WOODSON

G 16

TACKLES 74

SACKS 2

INT 9

FS NICK COLLINS

G 16

TACKLES 53

SACKS 1

INT 6

SS ATARI BIGBY

G 13

TACKLES 49

SACKS 0

INT 4

CB AL HARRIS

G 10

TACKLES 34

SACKS 1

INT 2

SPECIAL TEAMS

P TIM MASTHAY*

PUNTS 53

AVG 45.2

NET N/A

K MASON CROSBY

FG 27--36

XP 48--49

POINTS 129

PR WILL BLACKMON

RET 3

AVG 3.7

TD 0

KR WILL BLACKMON

RET 10

AVG 23.3

TD 0

New acquisition

*2008 college stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 11--5

September

12 at Philadelphia

19 Buffalo

27 at Chicago (M)

October

3 Detroit

10 at Washington

17 Miami

24 Minnesota

31 at N.Y. Jets

November

7 Dallas

14 BYE

21 at Minnesota

28 at Atlanta

December

5 San Francisco

12 at Detroit

19 at New England

26 N.Y. Giants

January

2 Chicago

(M) Monday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: T22

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .488

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 6

ANALYSIS

Three Sunday-nighters—versus the Vikes and the Cowboys at home and against the Pats in Foxborough—speak to the lofty expectations surrounding the Packers, and to their marquee opposition. Overall, though, Green Bay has the weakest slate in the division. A stretch of four road games in five weeks will be tough, but the Packers close with two at Lambeau, where they have an icy edge.

SPOTLIGHT

A.J. Hawk, Linebacker

IN 2006, Hawk made the All-Rookie team, with 120 tackles, 3½ sacks and two interceptions from an outside linebacker spot. In the three years since he has been unable to exceed any of those numbers. In moving to the inside in 2009—his first season in coordinator Dom Capers's 3--4 scheme—Hawk had only 89 tackles and one sack for the league's second-ranked defense. Asked to assess his season, Hawk, 26, says, "I think it was just like our defense as a whole—at times able to make plays and at times not as consistent."

There are reasons to believe Hawk is headed for a turnaround. The first: Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes that Hawk has been having his best camp as a pro. "I've liked his approach," McCarthy says. "His conditioning is at the highest level. He's always been a highly conditioned athlete, and I think he's taken it to another level this year. He's been very productive out here."

Another reason: The 6'2", 247-pound Hawk will be more accustomed to Capers's system, which is known for the variety of its pressure packages. From March to August, Hawk says Green Bay went through four installations of the playbook to better master its complexities. For a unit whose last meaningful game was a 51--45 playoff loss at Arizona, attention to detail in 2010 will be essential. "As a defense, we know that wasn't us," Hawk says of the unit that allowed the Cardinals to run wild.

"I look at a lot of the same faces [in the huddle] I've seen since I've been here. You can't put a stat on how important that is. We're trying to see what kind of a run we can put together. We know if we're not winning, it's on us."

PHOTOBOB ROSATOGREEN AND GOLD RUSH Grant & Co. look to ride last year's strong finish to a hot start in 2010. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER

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