In preparation for today’s preseason game against the Packers, I had the unique opportunity to talk to fellow Wooster Scot Andy Tisdel, who writes at Oak Creek Patch. I was able to ask him some questions about the Packers’ quest for a repeat, players returning from injury, and other relevant topics that will get you pumped up to watch some real tackle football tonight.
After winning the Super Bowl despite all the injuries, do you feel that the Packers are entering this season as an improved team? Are there any now-healthy players who will especially help the team stay in dominant form?
I think they are. They have the benefit of keeping the same offensive and defensive schemes, the coaches are almost all the same with the exception of Jimmy Robinson (WR coach, now in Dallas), and almost all the core players are returning. The Eagles and the Saints have made a lot of noise in free agency; the Packers have quietly built depth (of their entire draft, not one player is expected to start this year) and gotten stronger. They’re getting Jermichael Finley back, which is a huge plus. There are very, very few NFL players that can shut Finley down one-on-one. If he stays healthy (he’s had two knee injuries in three seasons), he’s a lock for the Pro Bowl.
Mike Neal is another one of those guys who should definitely improve the team if he stays healthy. He’s a second-year DE from Purdue, enormously strong and with some decent pass-rush moves, but he missed all but 1 1/2 games of a possible 20 last season. They’ve got high hopes for him replacing Cullen Jenkins, who went to Philadelphia.
Will we get 2008 Ryan Grant or 2009 Ryan Grant this season?
Grant is in a weird position. He had eight carries last year, then was lost for the season. He’s coming back in 2011 as fresh as a 28-year-old RB can possibly be, and he’s in a contract year. I think he can be the guy that chewed up the Browns in ’09, but this offense is never going to run through him. His best role is a really good complement to Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.
At the same time, the Packers have James Starks and Alex Green behind Grant. Starks impressed against Philadelphia in the postseason, and Green is a third-round rookie with a lot of potential. This is probably the deepest backfield Green Bay has had since 2005. I think you’ll see a pretty effective two-back rotation this year, maybe even three if Green shows some promise. Grant might be destined to have a decent season, but a limited role.
Do the Packers have any compelling positional battles this offseason? Is there anything that will be especially different about this year’s team?
Off the top of my head, left guard, backup defensive end and backup tight end are probably the biggest battles, so not really that exciting (laughs). Not really the stuff of headlines. They’re swapping our nose tackle, B.J. Raji, and defensive end Ryan Pickett, which could be interesting. Raji’s more of a playmaker, he had 6.5 sacks as a NT last year, and a move to DE should free him up to make some more plays. Pickett’s just impossible to move, which is what you want on the nose in a 3-4.
Schematically, the return of Finley changes a lot of things on this team. In the playoff loss to the Cardinals in ’09, Finley went ape-you-know-what. He had something like six catches for 159 yards. The coaching staff was so impressed, they built the entire offense around him in the offseason, and at the beginning of 2010 he had 301 yards in four games. Finley goes down in Game 5, the door opens, Greg Jennings catches 64 balls in the last 12 games and makes the Pro Bowl. The point is, Mike McCarthy is going to have to construct the offense around both of ‘em, as well as the rest of the wide receiving corps. It’s not going to be just Jennings or just Finley. They should have a more balanced attack this year.
What would you say is the deepest position on the roster? (You can’t just say “the defense”)
Wide receiver. No question about that. When your second-round pick (Randall Cobb) is sitting at No. 5 on the depth chart, and you’ve got two or three talented undrafted rookies that should make the practice squad, you’re ridiculously deep. Honorable mention goes to the tight end spot; they’ll probably keep four this year and still let some good players go.
How do the Browns look against the Packers?
They’ve got strengths to match up against Green Bay’s strengths. Packers are deep at WR, the Browns have what I think is a very underrated secondary. That should be fun to watch. I love the Browns’ depth at RB with Peyton Hillis, Brandon Jackson and a healthy Hardesty. I was hoping Hardesty would fall to Green Bay, honestly. The lines are solid. The wideouts are/ middling. I don’t know if the overall talent level is up there with Green Bay, but Cleveland has a solid foundation.
However, I think they’re instituting a lot of changes on defense and offense, and without much of the offseason to implement them, I’m not sure how successful the changes will be this year. Switching your base defense is hard on its own; doing it without much of the offseason could be a Herculean task.
Do you see the Packers making another deep playoff run?
I think it’s certainly possible. We’re playing the NFC South this year, which had three 10-win teams in 2010, so it’s not like it’ll be the easiest road. Last year Green Bay had all the injuries, nobody was expecting much out of them and they sorta flew under the radar right up until they beat the crap out of Atlanta in the playoffs. This year they won’t sneak up on anybody. But I think they’ve got the talent and the coaching to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the NFC, including the Eagles and Saints.
Is there a team in your division that scares you?
I don’t know about ‘scares’, but I’ll be keeping an eye on the Lions. Detroit hasn’t had a good team since the days of Barry Sanders, but looking up and down their 2011 roster, there aren’t many huge weaknesses. They’ve got a good RB, a good TE, a top-five WR in Calvin Johnson and a monstrous defensive line. If Matthew Stafford stays healthy, these guys could come out of nowhere like the Packers did in ’07. (Confession: I kind of want the Lions to make it to the NFC Championship game, there to be defeated by the Packers. The Vikings were there in ’09, the Bears and Packers in ’10. I don’t think one division has ever put all four teams in their conference championship game in just three years. We’d be setting a record!)
What will you be watching for on Saturday?
When the Packers are on offense, I’ll be watching the timing between Aaron Rodgers and his receivers. That hasn’t been terrific so far in camp, but maybe that’ll improve in a game setting. I’d like to see how the candidates for left guard are doing, particularly against a 4-3 defense for the first time this year. I’ll also be watching Neal and the other candidates for defensive end.
I was at the Packers-Browns preseason game last year, and I remember Jake Delhomme just eating us up. The D-line couldn’t get to him and the secondary couldn’t cover anybody while the Browns’ first-team offense was out. Obviously it’s not the end of the world if that happens again, but you’d like the defense to do better this time around.
Lastly, can you see this Packers core becoming this decade’s team?
It’s definitely possible. This 2011 team is the product of basically a six-year plan by Ted Thompson, the general manager. It’s almost entirely composed of his draft picks and it’s built for long-term success. The Packers have the all-important continuity in their coaching staffs, most of their core players are signed to long-term deals (Rodgers, safety Nick Collins, Jennings, etc). They need to ink new deals for Finley and guard Josh Sitton, but there’s no reason why this team can’t be what the pundits call a ‘perennial contender’. I don’t think Packer Nation is thinking in those terms right now, though. The focus around here is all about repeating in 2011.
You can read my take from the Browns’ side of the football at http://oakcreek.patch.com/blog_posts/catching-up-with-dawg-pound-dailys-eric-batke
To read more from Andy Tisdel, visit http://oakcreek.patch.com/users/andy-tisdel/blog_posts