All May Be Well Now, But...
by Mike Conklin
August 24, 2012
The wringing of the hands has largely ceased, after a near-dominant performance against the Bengals. The offense moved the ball well, and still showed plenty of room for improvement. The defense got off the field on several third downs, and were able to keep Andy Dalton uncomfortable in the pocket. Most of the things that fans wanted to see from the starting units were on display Thursday night.
The Bengals do not appear to be a particularly bad team. They made it to the playoffs last year, and finished with the seventh-ranked defense in the league. On offense A.J. Green looks like a budding star, and Andy Dalton was everything the Bengals were hoping for and more as a rookie last year. The fact that the Packers looked so much better than the Bengals was undoubtedly a good sign, even if it is only the preseason.
“We got better today,” Mike McCarthy said after the game. “So yes, we’re a step closer to being ready for the season than we were when we left Green Bay. That was the goal; that was the objective – to improve, to grow and take that step and I thought we accomplished that tonight.”
McCarthy, the Packers, and their fans should be happy with what they accomplished. They needed to have a good game, and they did. As a result many fans came in off the ledge, and even began to talk about another Super Bowl again.
While all the positive things that came out of this game should not be overlooked, it is easy to forget that lurking just under the surface are quite a few problems that can easily rear their ugly heads for the Packers. The starters may not play much between now and the regular season kickoff against the 49ers, but if any of the following things come to fruition next week or even early in the season...and they are all realistic possibilities...the euphoria of this week's victory will quickly evaporate and the sky will start falling again. Here is an unfortunate look at a series of events that could bring about much weeping and gnashing of teeth (to use a Biblical expression):
Cedric Benson Fumbles. In just six carries, Benson was a revelation against the Bengals. He showed a gritty, determined running style not seen in Green Bay since the days of Ahman Green. By doing so, he quickly ingratiated himself to a fan base that was desperately hoping to see exactly what they saw. It almost made them forget that one of the reasons the Bengals reportedly grew tired of him was his penchant of putting the ball on the ground. It has been well documented that in the past two seasons, Benson has fumbled 12 times. In McCarthy's high flying offense, that just won't fly. If Benson bobbles the ball, he'll be behind the eight ball quickly.
Marshall Newhouse Embarrassed in Pass Protection. With the poor play of the backup tackles while Newhouse missed time earlier in camp, Newhouse seems like a bastion of strength at this point. It is easy to forget that he has only started 10 games at left tackle, and he was clearly the weak link on the offensive line in 2011. In a formula that accounts for sacks, hits, and hurries, Pro Football Focus had him ranked 69th out of 75 tackles in pass blocking efficiency last year. Newhouse did progress as the season wore on, and the Packers seem to express every confidence in him. But if he goes up against a big time rusher and gets beat like a drum, concerns will quickly spring up once again.
(Insert Safety Here) Gets Burned Deep. It remains to be seen just how much Charles Woodson will play the safety position, but no matter how it shakes out there will be plenty of snaps that will see one of the other young and unproven safeties in the defensive backfield. Whether it is M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Anthony Levine or Sean Richardson (they all seem to have at least some kind of shot for a roster position right now) the first time they get turned around and give up an ugly big play the questions will begin. Opposing offensive coordinators are not dumb, and you can bet that they will be very aware when these players are on the field. They will look to exploit the young player, and will likely succeed at some point. When it happens, watch to see how the young players respond to adversity (as McCarthy likes to preach). They could either learn and grow, or it could turn into another Charlie Peprah situation where it is a problem all season long.
Davon House's Shoulder Is Worse Than We Thought. House looked like he may be the real deal, and it seemed like he was just getting ready to sew up the starting cornerback job before he went down to a shoulder injury. Shortly thereafter, Mike McCarthy said that it would have to be re-evaluated after about three weeks, at which time one of two things would likely happen. House will either be cleared to play with a harness...which would not be ideal...or the shoulder may require surgery. If House's injury turns out to require surgery, then the Packers will have to quickly get used to the idea of playing with Jarrett Bush (limitations in coverage), Sam Shields (has been burned often), or Casey Hayward (facing inevitable rookie growing pains). That leads us to the next point...
Bush/Shields/Hayward Gives Up a Crucial Big Play. It is a passing league, and all cornerbacks are burned sometimes. With this group, the concern is not that they will get beat on a big play. We know that will inevitably happen. The concern is that one play will lead to another, and they will become the focus of the opposing quarterback every time they are on the field. It is easy to envision a scenario where one pass interference call leads to another, fans turn on the player, and the defense will end up giving up a lot of explosive plays because every team is only as strong as its weakest link. Exhibit A: 2011.
Nick Perry Looks Bad in Coverage. All it takes is a Darren Sproles or a similar player to be isolated out in the flat with Perry trying to cover him. If Perry looks like his feet are stuck in cement and he just can't cover well, it will limit some of what the Packers may want to do with him. Like Larry McCarren is fond of saying, the Packers didn't draft him to cover...they drafted him to rush the passer. That may be true, but for Dom Capers to have the ultimate versatility with this scheme as he would like, the defense would be best served if Perry was able to cover at least moderately well.
The Return of the Drops. Jermichael Finley hasn't had much time on the field through much of training camp, and hasn't suited up for a preseason game at all. There is a contingent of fans who seem to be waiting for the opportunity to pounce on Finley the first time he drops a pass. The same can be said for James Jones, who has already had a couple of drops this preseason. For as great of a receiving corps as the Packers have, they have been plagued by drops at inopportune times. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald Driver had the sixth-worst drop percentage in the entire league, and Jones was fourteenth-worst. Most of the season drops weren't too big of a problem for the Packers to overcome, as evidenced by their 15-1 record. They reared their ugly head during the playoff loss to the Giants, when receivers dropped eight catchable balls. If the drops start happening again with any regularity and it starts costing games again, it could get ugly.
The Defense Struggles on Third Down. Last year it seemed like the Packers just couldn't get off the field on third down. It usually seemed like it came down to two things, and they often were intertwined: 1.) The front seven did not generate enough pass rush, and 2.) there were wide open receivers in the middle of the field. The Packers were uncharacteristically aggressive to try to address these issues, spending premium draft picks and even trading up three times during the draft to select defensive players. They even brought in a couple free agents. We kept hearing the word "juice" bandied about all offseason, but until there is evidence on Sundays that the front seven is dramatically improved the questions will remain. As for the wide open middle of the field, the Packers are still unproven at safety and their nickel and dime defensive back situation still hasn't completely shaken out. While the defense looked good against the Bengals this week, if the defense continues to have problems getting off the field on third down many will feel like this could be 2011 all over again.
And From the So-Obvious-It-Goes-Without-Saying Category...Injuries. The Packers already lost Desmond Bishop, but if they lose another key player or two their season could quickly be derailed. The Packers actually were quite fortunate in this regard last season. At this point they seem to have little depth at offensive line and quarterback, and are unproven at safety. If the Packers sustain key injuries to players at those positions they may be hard pressed to have a deep playoff run, which is what is expected of them this season.
Despite all of these negative possibilities, the Packers remain one of the best teams in the league. As long as the reigning MVP continues to play quarterback for them, they will likely be a contender. In a league designed for parity, however, there is not all that great of a difference between the top teams and the also-rans. The Packers need to solve these issues if they want to reach the heights to which they aspire.
Photo Credit: OnMilwaukee.com