Chasing Perfection: A Few Areas Where the Packers Can Improve in 2011
“Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence.” — Vince Lombardi
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these words, or a variation of it, were said in each NFL locker room every season. The quote in itself is nearly perfect, as there has only been one “perfect” team record-wise in the Super Bowl era.
Which brings me to my overall point. While the Packers accomplished the goal that every team sets out to at the beginning of the season, they weren’t a perfect team by any means. The 2010 Packers lost six games along the way, overcoming several deficiencies in the process. Every Packer fan from the Pacific to the Atlantic (and beyond, for our international readers) expects the Packers to repeat next season, but that might not be possible unless the Packers continue to chase perfection.
Listed below are several areas where the Packers can continue to improve for next season, and the ways in which they can do it.
Kick and Punt Returning
The Packers averaged just 20.8 yards per return on kicks and 7.9 on punts, good for 26th and 22nd in the NFL, respectively. The group—which consisted of Jordy Nelson, Sam Shields, Pat Lee, James Starks and Tramon Williams—produced zero touchdowns and very few big plays. The Packers were also one of five teams that failed to produce a kick or punt return over 60 yards over the course of the season.
How it Could Improve:
The Packers made their first substantial move in the returning department in some time when they took Randall Cob in the second round of April’s draft. He’ll need to win the spot in camp, but all signs point to Cobb being the Packers primary return of kicks and punts. If that scenario does unfold, Cobb should be a marked improvement. He scored two touchdowns off punts at Kentucky, and averaged 24.7 yards on 44 career kick returns. I’d hesitate to call him the next Devin Hester, but Cobb can help turn around the Packers returning woes in a hurry.
The Packers rushed for just 1,606 yards (24th in NFL) and 11 touchdowns (18th) in 2010, and they failed to have a rusher go over 1,000 yards. Brandon Jackson led the team with 703 yards, but struggled mightily to be productive in a leading role. He produced just 43.7 yards a game and had just two runs over 20 yards in 190 carries. The Packers rushing average of 3.8 was sixth-worst in the league, and no back with over 20 carries had an average over four yards.
How it Could Improve:
Without Ryan Grant’s ankle injury in Week 1, the rushing offense likely wouldn’t have been a problem. His injury changed everything. Jackson was in over his head in a starting role, and he’s much better suited to play primarily on third downs. James Starks was stuck on the PUP list for the start of the season and didn’t truly get his feet under him until the playoffs. The Packers picked up Dmitri Nance to replace Grant, but he rarely saw consistent action.
However, all these factors make it probable that the Packers will improve running the football without changing much next season. Grant, if healthy, gives the Packers a one-cut runner with good vision, and his 2009 season (1,253 yards, 4.4 average, 11 touchdowns, 8 runs of 20+, 61 first downs) dwarfs anything the Packers got last season. He won’t get close to those numbers next season, but that has more to do with the progression and performance of Starks than Grant’s ability. Starks will get his share of carries, and his running style gives the Packers a sense of toughness on the offensive side of the football that they’ve occasionally lacked. With a full year under his belt in an NFL offense, and a healthy body for the first time in two years, Starks should be a factor. Either way, it’s hard to fathom the Packers not tacking on a few hundred yards to their 2010 total with both Grant and Starks available.
Catching the Football
James Jones had several huge drops during the course of the season that could have wrecked several games for the Packers. According to STATS, Inc., Jones had six drops, second on the team to Donald Driver, who had seven. Jordy Nelson, despite catching nine passes in the Super Bowl, was fighting his hands throughout that contest. And overall, each receiver had instances where catchable passes were dropped.
How it Could Improve:
There is absolutely zero reason why the Packers were so sloppy catching the football in 2010. No team has the collection of talent at both receiver and tight end that Green Bay possesses. But for that same reason, one could expect this group to rebound in 2011.
Jones, the receiver guilty of the most frustrating drops, might also be playing elsewhere next season. But like the case is for Jones, the problem is all mental for the Packers receivers and it’s possible that new receivers coach Edgar Bennett can turn around whatever was ailing the group last season. Despite being a former running back, he’s an accountable assistant coach who could revert the receivers back to their fundamentals.
But changes aside, with Greg Jennings, Driver, Nelson and Jermichael Finley as your top four receivers, the Packers should have no excuses in 2011 for catchable passes hitting the turf.
Kick and Punt Coverage
Despite not having awful numbers, the Packers kick and punt coverage teams were on their heels for the majority of the season. Their 21.8 yards per kick put them in the top 15 in the NFL, but their 11.0 yards per punt was eighth worst.
Two big returns for touchdowns—at Chicago in Week 3 and at Atlanta during the NFC Divisional round—were backbreakers at the time, and long returns against both New England (71 yards from 313-pound Dan Connolly) and Atlanta in Week 12 (Eric Weems 40 yards plus 15-yard face mask) turned the tide in each of those losses.
How it Could Improve:
Special teams coach Shawn Slocum takes most of the blame, and rightfully so. It’s his job to prepare his unit every week no matter which street free agents you have to work with, as both Dom Capers and Joe Philbin proved last season. But in all fairness to Slocum, you can’t discount how much the Packers injuries decimated their coverage units.
The players who usually should be covering kicks were in starters roles because of all the injuries. That kind of disarray in the special teams can be hard to overcome, especially if several of the players out were key contributors on that unit. As long as the Packers stay healthy in 2011, they should be better in this area.
Despite the improvements from 2009 (the Packers had nowhere to go but up), quarterback Aaron Rodgers still got hit too many times. Green Bay gave up the 11st most sacks in the NFL last season (38), accounting for 231 yards of lost offense. And while improvisation in the pocket is one of Rodgers’ strong points, he was called upon too many times to extend broken plays because of poor pass protection.
Other factors went into that—namely the lack of a running game—but there should be no more excuses at this point. It wasn’t a huge problem last season, but certainly something the Packers can hope will improve for 2011.
How it Can Improve
It’s not unreasonable to expect more improvements from the Packers pass protection in 2011. The team has drafted tackles in the first round in back-to-back years, and they have Pro Bowl-caliber players in Chad Clifton and Josh Sitton along the offensive line. Scott Wells is also a smart center who excels in making pre-snap reads.
And even if an injury happens to a spot on the line, the Packers now have the depth to cover it. Derek Sherrod, Bryan Bulaga, Clifton and T.J. Lang can all play tackle, and both Lang and Bulaga have the versatility to start inside. Lang may even start at left guard if Daryn Colledge isn’t retained.
But most know why improving the pass protection is so important. With concussion testing improved, and Rodgers already two deep in that area, protecting the franchise becomes even more imperative. The Packers have the talent on the offensive line and at quarterback to annually have less than 30 sacks allowed. 2011 would be a good time to start that trend.
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2