This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
After leading the NFL in scoring last year (30.4 ppg), the Packers were one special teams gaffe away from playing in Super Bowl XLIX. A botched onside kick recovery with 2:09 remaining in January's NFC championship game against Seattle marked the biggest blunder in Green Bay's 15-point meltdown.
Mike McCarthy's response? He's lessened his offensive responsibilities. The 10th-year coach has surrendered play-calling duties for 2015, the franchise's most drastic structural change since firing defensive coordinator Bob Sanders six years ago. McCarthy's supervision wasn't the issue—twice in the past four years Green Bay has boasted the NFL's top O—but rather, the coach wants global oversight. He believes that some areas, specifically special teams, suffered from his focusing so intensely on offensive minutiae. Assistant Tom Clements will now call plays. (McCarthy also fired special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, a longtime friend.) Explains the coach, "I'll see more of the game than I've seen in the past."
"It's not that he's ignoring the offense or doesn't trust himself to call plays," says receiver Randall Cobb. "He's just making sure every other part of our team is running smoothly too."
One could argue that an offense manned by MVP Aaron Rodgers doesn't need much maintenance anyway—especially with the loss of just one starter. Over the past four seasons, Rodgers has thrown 139 TDs to 25 interceptions. He's even more impressive at home: The 31-year-old has had 457 attempts, thrown 33 TDs and had zero regular-season losses since last throwing a pick at Lambeau Field, in 2012. You can attribute part of that to an impenetrable young line. That unit, which in '14 allowed 30 sacks (NFL average: 38), is considered a model for longevity. All five starters were drafted in-house, and only one, '10 first-rounder Bryan Bulaga, was taken before the fourth round. Together they allow Rodgers to do what he does best: stand in the pocket and deliver accurate strikes. (It helps that he also senses pressure better than most pocket passers and extends plays with his legs when necessary.) The line adapts with Rodgers as he processes defenses and makes intuitive presnap adjustments, another reason McCarthy is comfortable in a reduced role.
The Packers were set to bring back their elite receiving unit in 2015—that is, until Jordy Nelson tore his right ACL in a preseason game. The loss of Nelson, a physical, vertical route-runner, is significant, but it's mitigated by promising second-year wideout Davante Adams, who steps into Nelson's No. 1 role alongside Cobb. Green Bay's coaching staff is extremely high on Adams, whom you may remember for his 100-yard games last year against the Patriots and the Cowboys. Stanford rookie Ty Montgomery, a thicker, stronger version of Cobb, gives the Packers yet another receiver who will generate extra yards after the catch. Balancing the attack is bruising third-year runner Eddie Lacy, who has barreled through tacklers for 1,100 yards in each of his first two seasons.
All of which is to say: As long as the D holds together.... And, once again, that's a question mark. Both the secondary and linebacking units are in flux. At one point in camp, Green Bay had only four healthy bodies at outside 'backer. And five-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews enters the year nursing a sore knee as he continues learning a new base position. Around midseason last year, when Green Bay was getting gashed on the ground, coordinator Dom Capers moved Matthews inside in sub packages. The Packers shored up their run D, and Capers is now expected to keep Matthews inside more often. That could change, of course, if fourth-round pick Jake Ryan (Michigan) proves himself inside alongside Sam Barrington.
Along the line, Green Bay re-signed nosetackles B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion to one-year deals but did not make any other additions, so it's up to Capers's creativity to improve with the existing talent. There's good reason for the Packers to be concerned about that run defense: Marshawn Lynch's Seahawks remain the top threat in the NFC, and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has returned to the division after a one-year absence.
McCarthy is sitting in on most defensive and special teams meetings—something he did not do previously. But the fact is: The gaps in Green Bay's roster are far smaller than those of any other team in the NFC North. If the Packers collapse in 2015, their coach knows whom to hold accountable.
SI'S PREDICTION: 12--4
ANDY BENOIT ON THE PACKERS' GAMBLING WAYS
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has always played high-risk, high-reward football featuring amoeba fronts and diversified coverages tied to various blitz designs. We've seen the upside of this (a nearly all-out blitz on a fourth-and-two play that resulted in Dez Bryant's disallowed catch late in last year's playoff victory over the Cowboys), and we've seen the downside (a true all-out blitz on the Seahawks' game-winning 35-yard TD to Jermaine Kearse in OT the following week). That NFC championship disappointment aside, more times than not, Capers's aggressiveness pays off. For that to continue, the Packers need quality man-to-man defenders on the back end. It wasn't a surprise that 32-year-old corner Tramon Williams was allowed to leave in free agency; Casey Hayward (above) is better at this point, at least in the slot. It was a surprise that rising backup corner Davon House was similarly allowed to leave in free agency—but just under two months later, GM Ted Thompson used his first-round pick on Damarious Randall (Arizona State), who costs a fraction of what House would have. How Hayward, Randall and last year's first-rounder, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, develop will ultimately determine the efficacy of Green Bay's high-risk, high-reward approach.