It's good to be the Carolina Panthers: trending upwards in DVOA, with an easier schedule and postseason path moving them past the Patriots as our Super Bowl favorites.
08 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Your forgiveness, please, if you think it’s inappropriate to present a team as a dynasty-in-the-making when that team is coming off an 0-1 postseason. This is not meant to promote hyperbole or incite reaction. It’s true, the word dynasty gets preemptively thrown around way too much these days. (Thanks a lot, Miami Heat.) And yet, what would you say is a more accurate way to depict the 2012 Green Bay Packers?
Just because they lost to the white-hot Giants in the divisional round last January doesn’t mean they’re looking to avenge anything. That loss wasn’t a case of their hidden weaknesses catching up to them, it was just an "off day" coming at the worst of times. In that game, Aaron Rodgers missed a few throws he normally makes. There were eight dropped balls by Packers receivers. The offensive line could not independently hold up against a dominant Giants pass rush, and the Packers’ defense was uninspiring and sloppy in a few very costly ways (see: end-of-half heave).
None of these were pervasive issues throughout the year, though. Remember, before that ill-timed bad day, this team was 15-1. Yes, the Packer defense took a step back. After ranking fifth (in yards allowed) en route to a Super Bowl title in 2010, it ranked 32nd in 2011. Opponents averaged a league-high 299.8 yards per game throwing against Dom Capers’s unit. This data is a bit misleading, though, as the potency of Green Bay’s offense led to a lot of garbage time or shootout games. Yes, Green Bay’s defense must bounce back this season, but it doesn’t have as far to bounce as you’d think. If it did, the Packers would not have gone 15-1.
It is Green Bay’s glistening offense that makes the "dynasty-in-the-making" talk sensible. Reigning MVP Rodgers, at 28, is now regarded by his peers and more than a few analysts as the best player in the sport. He has a cavalcade of big-play receivers, an innovate designer of offense in Mike McCarthy, and a stable supporting cast that allowed this unit to post a staggering 35 points per game last season.
General Manager Ted Thompson did not make many moves during the off-season because he did not have to. He used his first-round draft pick on Southern California pass rusher Nick Perry, hopefully filling the closest thing this team had to a hole. He replaced veteran center Scott Wells with a cheaper, older model: Jeff Saturday. He signed a few backup defensive ends to compete with second-round pick Jerel Worthy. And he made a few shuffles to the coaching staff –- most notably, promoting the quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to offensive coordinator, where he will replace new Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. This sort of run-of-the-mill off-season is what happens when a front office constructs a sterling long-term roster and manages the cap well. No drama, no hoopla, no story lines.
And so that leaves "dynasty" talk to define the angle on the 2012 Green Bay Packers. There’s not a more accurate approach. The Packers are young, well-managed, and clear Super Bowl favorites. Let’s examine this dynasty-in-the-making.
First off, let’s just get the Aaron Rodgers paean out of the way. You already know about his physical tools. Rodgers has a strong, lively arm. He does not just have great accuracy, he has great precision accuracy. That’s the primary reason Packers receivers post such hefty run-after-the-catch numbers. Also, Rodgers’s athleticism shows up every time he scrambles and throws darts on the move. He does not rely on his legs, though, because he is so mechanically sound and poised in the pocket, even with bodies around him, that he does not need to.
That’s Rodgers from a physical standpoint. Mentally, he’s just as good. He works through his progressions as quickly and decisively as any quarterback in the game. He’s Bobby Fischer at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t just identify defenses, he manipulates them. He has mastered the art of subterfuge before the snap, and he has mastered subtle, deceptive body language after the snap. It may not matter that Ted Thompson could not keep the backup Matt Flynn (he commanded mid-level starter’s money as a free agent); going with the untested Graham Harrell (or the seventh-round rookie B.J. Coleman) is all the same to Thompson. He knows that if his starting quarterback is out for an extended period, his team is finished anyway.
The Packers have not just put Rodgers in a great system (more on that momentarily), they have surrounded him with great weapons. Wide receiver Greg Jennings is a first-class route runner, which makes him nearly impossible to cover one-on-one despite not being an ideal physical specimen. Opposite him, Jordy Nelson is coming off a season in which he scored 15 touchdowns and caught 68 passes at an average of 18.6 yards per pop. Nelson can stretch the field and, more importantly, make quick adjustments to a ball in flight. Behind Nelson is the sagacious 37-year-old veteran Donald Driver, who has not lost nearly as much speed as you would guess.
Inside, if tight end Jermichael Finley’s raw athleticism were a form of currency, he would be about 10 times richer than he is even after having signed a two-year, $14 million contract. The reason Green Bay did not give the 25-year-old a longer deal is that he has struggled with injuries, mental lapses, and dropped passes. But it is possible, perhaps even probable, that Finley is still improving. That’s scary.
Finley can serve as a slot receiver, though if they want, the Packers have a real slot receiver in James Jones. Sloppy mistakes have skewed Jones’s image a bit, but if you look at his skills, he can be as dangerous a big-play threat as just about anyone. So can the man gunning for his job: second-year pro Randall Cobb. Cobb is similar in style to former Steeler Antwaan Randle El ... can we dub him "Antwaan Randall Cobb" yet?
There’s not an offensive coach in pro football who would not yearn to have a receiving corps like Green Bay’s. What makes this one particularly dominant is the West Coast-style spread system it operates in. Mike McCarthy is superb at creating mismatches through entangled route combinations and formation variation. He remains several years ahead of his time in designing plays out of the increasingly popular three-receiver sets.
McCarthy is also terrific at capitalizing on the flexibility of his personnel. Generally, Finley is the X-factor. Defenses must decide whether to treat him as a tight end or a wide receiver. He is a much better pass-catcher than blocker at this point, but defenses can’t always treat him as a receiver because McCarthy has shown a commitment to using base personnel and multi-tight end alignments. That’s commendable given how tempting it must be to sling it to these wideouts all day, but slightly fewer touches for the wide receivers in the name of a balanced attack would make this a much better offense in the grander scheme of things.
The Packers are willing to throw from their heavier sets, and they have a bounty of niche players to incorporate here. Tight end Andrew Quarless is effective working off the line of scrimmage inside, and he showed during Finley’s injury absence in 2010 that he is capable of occasionally splitting into the slot. (He is, however, coming off a serious knee injury and may be limited early.) H-back Tom Crabtree is a serviceable red-zone target, though mainly because defenses expect him to be a motion blocker. Crabtree will try to keep fending off athletic 2011 seventh-round pick Ryan Taylor for playing time. He also has the more athletic receiving H-back D.J. Williams (fifth-round pick, 2011) behind him. Out of the backfield, James Starks is adequate in the screen game (a tactic the Packers make good use of), and fullback John Kuhn is surprisingly soft-handed in the flats. Additionally, some in the organization believe that the man with the best hands on the team is undrafted second-year running back Brandon Saine, who is in line for an elevated role this season.
Saine shows decent tempo-changing ability with the ball in his hands, which could earn him touches in the running game. This is one area where the Packers can stand to improve. In the playoff loss, the Giants’ pass rush forced Green Bay’s passing attack to go max-protect and be predictable in its quick strikes. Most offenses would have tried to weather this storm by pounding the rock. The Packers, however, very clearly did not have a formidable enough ground game to rely on.
Starks will likely be listed as the starting back heading into Week 1, but that’s only titular. This will wind up being a committee. Starks does not have the consistent burst to handle every-down duties. Perhaps last year’s third-round pick, Alex Green, will, though he must bounce back from an anterior cruciate ligament injury that wiped out most of his rookie season. Green, like his predecessor Ryan Grant, is a one-cut runner who will most likely need quality blocking in order to thrive. Green will likely show a better initial burst than Grant, though.
With every great offense, there is a tendency to assume that the front line is good. That’s how an undeserving Saints offensive tackle has made the Pro Bowl each of the past two years, anyway. Really, though, in today’s NFL, great offenses often have mediocre front lines that are masked by a great quarterback. The Packers are this way. Right guard Josh Sitton, though less impressive last season than he was in 2010, is tremendous in all facets, but he is the only stud up front. At right tackle, third-year pro Bryan Bulaga is dependable but not yet dynamic. At center, Jeff Saturday will prove unable to move powerful players out of a phone booth. But at least he won’t make any mental mistakes. At left guard, T.J. Lang will fill in the blanks but don’t expect many running plays to be designed around his pulling. At left tackle, Marshall Newhouse will probably beat out last year’s first-round pick, Derek Sherrod (who suffered a gruesome broken leg in December), and he’ll need plenty of chip-blocking help against quality edge rushers. Or maybe he won’t, because his brilliant quarterback will understand the offensive line’s limitations and adjust accordingly. After all, that’s exactly what Rodgers did last season.
The difference between the 2011 Packers defense and the 2010 Packers defense was that the 2011 Packers defense gave up a ton of big plays. That’s the risk that coordinator Dom Capers takes with his multidimensional, often byzantine zone-blitzing scheme. The big plays given up are often a consequence of the pass rush and blitzes not functioning properly.
The Packer pass rush was inconsistent and underperforming. That became painfully apparent whenever superstar Clay Matthews got tied up, and that happened just a tad more than usual with Matthews battling minor injuries. To correct the problem, Ted Thompson drafted Nick Perry, whom he hopes will become the second USC Trojan in four years to light it up at outside linebacker. Scouts love Perry’s fluid explosiveness and violent hands. He left college early and only started for one-and-a-half seasons. If Perry's initial learning curve proves too steep, Frank Zombo (a decent speed guy but not an explosive athlete) and Erik Walden (a slightly limited player that can cover tight ends) will see plenty of snaps. Fifth-round rookie Terrell Manning could get a look, but he also figures to have a challenging early transition ahead of him, and the Packers seem more inclined to make him an inside linebacker in his first year.
A staple of any zone-blitzing defense is the fire-X blitz, which involves both inside linebackers rushing the A-gaps. The Packers have one of the game’s best fire-X blitzers in Desmond Bishop, a former sixth-round pick who is also a solid pass defender with improving instincts against the run. Bishop has clearly supplanted the resoundingly average A.J. Hawk as the primary inside linebacker. Hawk has not lived up to his draft position, but keep in mind that "average" does not mean "poor." He is still a better option than the backups D.J. Smith and Rob Francois, both of whom had good and bad moments as fill-in starters last season. Also of note is former starter Brad Jones, who is moving from the outside to the inside.
Hawk plays a lot more snaps in Green Bay than he would anywhere else because, in a lot of their nickel packages, the Packers substitute a defensive lineman and keep four linebackers on the field. In fact, the 2-4-5 is really their base defense. They played that on 61 percent of the snaps last season, as opposed to just 27 percent of snaps in a 3-4.
A two-man defensive line can often suffice when one of the men is B.J. Raji. Though the 2009 first-round pick was a little more up-and-down last year than you would like to see, there is no reason to worry. Raji accentuates his 340 pounds of raw power with the uncanny quickness and agility of Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata. It’s just a matter of exhibiting those traits on a slightly more regular basis.
Raji, who almost never comes off the field, plays nose tackle in the 3-4. Flanking him is a deep rotation of ends that, the Packers hope, will one day be headlined by second-round rookie Jerel Worthy. Coming out of Michigan State, where he matured greatly between his sophomore and junior seasons, Worthy drew comparisons to Green Bay’s current end, Ryan Pickett. If he can play to Pickett’s level, and show even just hints of Pickett’s versatility, he’ll be a successful pick. If he is underwhelming, as he was at the scouting combine, he’ll be the next Mike Neal (Green Bay’s 2010 second-round pick).
Another possible solution at end is fourth-round pick Mike Daniels, who weighs well under 300 but possesses good quickness. It will probably be tough for the rookie to get a lot of snaps, though, considering that incumbents Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson are both experienced in this scheme. The Packers also added free agents Anthony Hargrove and Phillip Merling, both of whom offer upside and little risk. Hargrove (who is suspended for the first eight games for his role in the Saints bounty scandal) lacks quickness but has always had a knack for making big plays. Merling, if finally healthy and focused, can be a lissome bruiser.
What makes Capers’s system great is its chicanery and flexibility –- often best exhibited before the snap. The not-so-secret ingredient is Charles Woodson. He’s the primary reason the Packers spend so much time in a 2-4-5. With him, the Packers are one of the few teams in football who do not feel unbearably vulnerable to the run when in nickel. Woodson is such a good blitzer that, occasionally, offenses find themselves back on their heels, calling plays in reaction to what this defense is doing. It’s not so much that Woodson knows how to get near the football (though he does), it’s that he knows how to influence where the football goes. He attacks spots and angles better than any defender in the game.
Though he turns 36 in October, Woodson has not shown any signs of decline. If he does start to leak or gets dinged, backup Jarrett Bush has proved capable of filling his role in short spurts (the second half of Super Bowl XLV comes to mind). Bush is not Woodson’s planned successor, though. The Packers drafted Davon House in the fourth round last year and Casey Hayward in the second round this year. House projects to be a man-press-type corner, while Hayward is considered to be a better zone player. Both could evolve into versatile forces; they will be learning behind a possible future Hall of Famer.
What is amazing is that Woodson can also still play man coverage from the slot and, if need be, outside. The Packers have two other very adroit outside man defenders in Sam Shields and Tramon Williams (who is hoping to rebound from a shoulder injury that hindered him in 2011 and ate up most of his off-season). At strong safety, Charlie Peprah was released after a failed physical. Undrafted second-year pro M.D. Jennings will be his primary replacement, though when Green Bay slides into a traditional 3-4 look, Woodson will move to strong safety.
In center field (though also capable of playing the strong side, if need be) is third-year pro Morgan Burnett. He is no Nick Collins, but the Packers don’t necessarily need him to be. They do, however, need him to be less reactive to pump fakes and duplicitous deep route combinations. With Peprah gone, the top backup safety becomes the fourth-round rookie Jerron McMillian.
In 2011, Mason Crosby made more than 80 percent of his field goals for the first time in his five-year career. The Packers trust him in just about any situation. Tim Masthay averaged a respectable 45.6 yards per punt last season. In the return game, "Antwaan Randall Cobb" is dynamic but tends to offset his big plays with big mistakes. The Packers are willing to live with that, though, because they believe a) Cobb will grow out of it and b) The big plays can still outweigh the big mistakes.
As long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, this offense will be nearly impossible to stop. The defense seems too loaded at all three levels not to bounce back from a subpar year. Expect this team to win its second Super Bowl in three years.
47 comments, Last at 10 Aug 2012, 7:01pm by Lance