August 18, 2012

Left tackle and line depth are concerns for Packers offense

Coming off a 2011 season in which the Packers offense set franchise records for points (560), total net yards (6,482), and fewest giveaways (14), the spotlight rarely shined brightly on five of the most important positions on the field, the offensive line.

The line took care of business and provided Aaron Rodgers with enough protection to earn an MVP award, set the NFL’s passer rating record (122.5) and lead his team to a 15-1 regular season record.

But this year’s mix of franchise-protectors is less qualified than last year’s and lacks depth, leaving questions about the team’s ability to approach or match the offensive success of 2011. The rising star of the group, Bryan Bulaga remains confident.

“I think it’s a pretty good group, I mean I really do,” said Bulaga, who allowed just one sack in 2011, according to STATS LLC. ”You have a good mix of veterans and young guys…every guys brings a different skill set [and I think] it all gels well together.”

On paper the presumed starting group (left to right) of Newhouse, Lang, Saturday, Sitton and Bulaga seem like a very strong crew – and they are, but it’s likely this same five won’t start all 16 games. Lack of depth on the line is evident early in camp and showed in the Packers first preseason game against San Diego, in which Aaron Rodgers took multiple hits in just eight pass attempts.

“Our number one goal is taking care of the quarterback no matter what position you’re at, said guard T. J. Lang, who just inked a new 4-year deal late Monday night. “It’s certainly something we didn’t do up to our ability Thursday night [against San Diego].”

With Marshall Newhouse sidelined by a concussion and second-year backup Derek Sherrod still recovering from a broken leg suffered last year in week 15, Herb Taylor started at left tackle and had trouble keeping rookie linebacker Melvin Ingram in front of him.

“I think it’s just having confidence in the guys behind us,” said Bulaga. “We have some good players behind us, it’s just a matter of making sure they’re ready if they’re called upon.”

Taylor certainly didn’t look ready, prompting rookie Andrew Datko and free agent pickup Reggie Wells to each get a look at starting left tackle in Newhouse’s absence during this past weekend’s practices.  Uncertainty as to who backs up the most crucial spot on the offensive line can’t be comforting to the coaching staff.

What’s even more concerning is the unproven ability of the Packers starting blind-side protector, Marshall Newhouse. While he had an entire off-season to improve, 2011 was an embarrassing one for Newhouse. Here are a few stats that demonstrate Newhouse’s struggles last year:
  • Newhouse allowed 10½ sacks in, the most by a Green Bay player since tackle Tony Mandarich gave up 12½ in 1990*
  • Newhouse, with 41½, led the club in "pressures" allowed. That includes all sacks, knockdowns and hurries. Newhouse's total is the highest since the Journal Sentinel began recording the statistic in 1999, surpassing guard Daryn Colledge's 40½ in 2009*
  • Newhouse (14½) surrendered the second-highest number of “bad” runs on the team, defined as a gain for 1 yard or less excluding goal-line, short-yardage or kneel-down plays*
While Newhouse was thrown into the gauntlet last year as a rookie, he has much to improve on in 2012 and is expected to learn quickly in a high-pressure position on a Super Bowl caliber team.

"(Newhouse is) an ascending player who will learn from the mistakes made last year and will also enhance the positives he did last year," said James Campen, the Packers’ offensive line coach. "He did a lot of good things, he did some things he’s worked on already this offseason. I expect him to grow and be better than he was last year, no question."

How much better Newhouse plays may go a long way toward dictating how much better the Packers offense can be in 2012. The continuity of the starting five also figures to be important, as 13-year veteran and five-time pro bowler Jeff Saturday joins familiar faces Sitton, Lang and Bulaga.

“When you can work with the same five guys…it’s just a matter of getting Jeff in there and getting him used to the way the two guards play,” said Bulaga. “He’s doing a great job picking it up.”

Hopefully the starting five will use pre-season action to figure out each other’s tendencies, learn from mistakes and ultimately be a seamless unit come opening day against San Francisco.

August 1, 2012

Packers Training Camp Storylines to Follow (1 of 5) – Running Backs

Coming off an impressive yet disappointing 15-1 season, the Green Bay Packers have high expectations and a roster in pristine condition for deep playoff run. And with training camp in full force, a number of interesting developments have surfaced that may be early indicators of how the 2012-13 Packers will perform. Below is the first of five posts, which will examine these key storylines and point out specific details to track throughout camp. Today’s topic is running backs.  

Will the real James Starks please stand up?
Now that Ryan Grant is out of the fold, Green Bay’s clear number one back is James Starks. But, as we know Starks was nagged by injuries throughout most of last season and never established the consistency the coaching staff or fans expected out of him. Training camp figures to be a good barometer of a few key factors that may hint at whether Starks is poised for a breakout year or for inconsistency:
·         Physique: What kind of shape is Starks in compared to last year? Did he hit the weight room and/or take care of his body enough to stay healthy during camp and throughout the year? RBs have such a short shelf life in the NFL, so it’s important that he comes to camp in shape, and that he’s not just using camp to get in shape.
·         His demeanor: It may seem trivial, but mental state and sense of role on the team is vital for a player like Starks. Not only is he young and fairly inexperienced, but he’s on a contending team and in a position that requires him to take a modest role in a high powered offense. Watch for his comments to the media, specifically any goals he mentions, what he’s done to improve himself and generally his attitude in interviews.

Backup plan?
Alex Green is recovering from an ACL tear. Brandon Saine is a fairly unknown entity, with much to prove. And well, numbers three and four on the depth chart – are completely unknowns. The worry here is the youth and inexperience of this group. Not to mention, Starks doesn’t exactly seem like a natural born leader.

So who of this group rises to the occasion and separates himself as the third down back? The best blocker of the group will probably earn the spot. It’s no secret the Packers throw a lot and on third down especially – so having a great blocking back is necessary. If Starks is taking the majority of the carries on early downs, the coaching staff will be wise to rest him…but that will require faith in the number two back.

Game plan and role of the back
While the RB in the Packers’ offense may not be getting 15-20 carries/touches a game, the position still is still a key piece to the offense. It’s almost a bonus position for Green Bay, because the threat of big plays on the ground help balance the offense and most importantly, protect Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers’ elusiveness makes up for the predictability of the passing game, but I’m sure Rodgers would be receptive to a cleaner pocket at times. A running game would help that.

Lastly, the Packers need to develop the ability to pound the ball 1-2 yards against a defense that knows it’s coming. Third-and-one and fourth-and-one downs should not be shotgun formations EVERY time; the offensiveline needs to belly up and win the battle in the trenches. It’s been a long time since the Packers could do that consistently.

What kind of year will Starks have? Any thoughts on the role of RB in the Packers offense? Chime in with your comments!