Finally! The dog days of summer are about to cede to the official start of football season! In a matter of days, the 2013 Green Bay Packers will begin its march to Meadowlands in February – hopefully.
With the dawn of training camp, eyes will be fixated on a number of position battles that will prove both intriguing and crucial to the Packers success this season. Who will start opposite newly-extended Morgan Burnett at safety? Who will fill out the roster after the Big-3 at WR? Who the heck is going to emerge as the lead-horse, or will play a major role in a back-by-committee? And of course, who is going to be this year’s Dezman Moses or Sam Shields - the undrafted free agent to make a name for himself?
But, to me, the key to the Packers success this season is the play up front on both sides of the ball. The Packers made big moves this offseason to address their play up front. And it is those moves that fans should pay most attention to during training camp.
To start with, the Packers offensive line play has been nothing to write home about, to say the least. Rodgers was sacked a whopping 51 times last year. Sure, some of that may fall on his propensity to hang onto the ball longer than most QBs. But, that’d be just excusing the line. It has to get better, starting with the play at LT.
After Newhouse again showed that he’s just not capable of being a full-time LT in this league, MM made a drastic move this offseason by announcing that they are flipping the line – moving both Bulaga and Sitton from the right to the left side and Lang and whomever to the right. The logic is simple – at least in his mind – put the best two linemen on Rodgers’ blind side. Whether the transition is that simple is something to watch for this training camp.
In addition to the transition of Bulaga, Sitton, and Lang, it is going to be a battle for the RT position. Newhouse – despite his less-than-stellar play at LT – is probably the favorite going into camp. He has the most experience and may simply be better suited for the right side of the line. After Newhouse, there is the enigma that is Derek Sherrod, the rookie David Bakhtiari, second-year player Andrew Datko, and the incumbent RT from last year – Don Barclay.
My bet is Barclay emerges from this crowd. He’s not graceful, doesn’t necessarily look the part, and doesn’t have the ideal size. But he’s a feisty SOB and he’ll give it his all. Whereas Newhouse is a finesse player, Barclay is a smashmouth player. There is no doubt that he wasn’t great last year. But, at the same time, he battled and held his own. If he takes that jump between Y1 and Y2 that MM always raves about, Barclay may be just what we need at RT – a tough, hard-nosed guy that’s better suited in run blocking than pass blocking.
On the other side of the ball, it is no secret the Packers have struggled replacing Cullen Jenkins. Yes, the Packers amassed the fourth-most sacks last season (which is shocking if you think about the amount of injuries to key players the Packers battled through). Still, though, the Packers down linemen have been average at best since Jenkins’ departure. Mike Neal was tabbed to be that guy. But injuries and inconsistency have plagued his brief career – to the point that he’s flirting with a position change. And Jerel Worthy certainly did little to give us hope last year. Enter Datone Jones.
Jones is part of the new wave of defensive linemen that are strong and athletic enough to be able to get after the QB from either the end or tackle spot. He will be particularly important when battling the new age of QBs that are just as effective scrambling as they are throwing. I don’t think I need to remind you what happened the last time the Packers faced such a QB.
In addition to Jones’ arrival, the Packers front-seven should get a boost from the return of Nick Perry. Perry’s first year was nothing special. He had a few sacks, but didn’t make that instant impact people had hoped. He was a liability in coverage – which you’d expect with a position change – and he only had one move: the bull rush. But, despite this, he showed promise – see here and here. And there is simply no doubt that the Packers missed his presence as both Dezman Moses and Erik Walden did little to help Clay last year – Walden, in particular, has ranked as the worst OLB in the last couple of years according to PFF.
And much like Jones, Perry has the athleticism to go with great size to combat the new breed at QB – as demonstrated in the first link showing him sacking Russell Wilson, chasing him down from behind. If he makes that Y2 jump, too, he may finally be the compliment on the other side that Claymaker has missed since his arrival.
On paper, the offering of Clay, Jones, Perry, Raji, and Neal can develop into a very good front-seven – one that can get after the QB and also play strong against the run.
Every training camp brings intrigue. And this year is no different. But, the key to the team’s success hinges on the needed improvement from the big men. The Packers offensive line must gel immediately after the position changes and a RT must emerge from a crowded battle. And the front-seven on defense needs impact from the team’s last two first-round picks. There’s reason for optimism that this canhappen and that the Packers can battle up-front against the likes of the 49ers – which is key if the Packers wish to return to glory.