The Green Bay Packers reported to camp on Thursday and worked in shells on Friday and Saturday. Here are three somewhat under-the-radar issues facing the team heading into the first full week of practice:
CREATE MORE SEPARATION
It’s fair to blame the offensive line and the quarterback for the ridiculous number of sacks last season, but don’t give the receivers a pass. Without Greg Jennings, super-quick Randall Cobb was the only player capable of creating separation on a consistent basis. In the three games I attended live and the other 15 I re-watched on the All-22, I can’t tell you how many times Aaron Rodgers had nowhere to go with the ball.
Whether it was due to nagging injuries or having to face better corners due to the absence of Jennings for much of the season, Jordy Nelson struggled to create space between himself and defensive backs. And for all his acrobatic catches in the red zone, James Jones has never had much quickness into and out of cuts, so to get him the ball between the 20s, Rodgers is often forced to throw into very tight windows.
So how can things be better in 2013? Nelson has to stay healthy and the running game and tight end Jermichael Finley have to be much more consistent. If at least two those three things happen, the receivers should find more room to maneuver, and in the process, stand a better chance of getting open.
DEFEND THE MIDDLE
In the past two seasons, few teams were as bad as the Packers at defending the middle of the field. One big reason was personnel. Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith – three of the four primary starters in 2011 and 2012 – weren’t very athletic. And while Brad Jones, the fourth member of that quartet, is certainly a faster and more fluid player, nobody is going to confuse him with Patrick Willis.
So how can things be better in 2013? Unless Terrell Manning develops, significant improvement won’t come from the personnel. A better rush and stronger play from the safeties would help, but at the end of the day, Dom Capers has to do a better job of designing schemes and calling plays. I can’t tell you how many times I saw enough unoccupied grass between the D-line and the secondary to lay down a putting green.
FIND A DIME
The Packers used extra defensive backs 67 percent of the time in 2012 – the highest figure in the NFL. And while the nickel package fared pretty well, things deteriorated a bit when a sixth defensive back took the field. That’s because both Charles Woodson and rookie Jerron McMillian were big liabilities in pass coverage. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Woodson simply couldn’t run, and while the coaches insisted that McMillian could cover wide receivers, I never saw any hint of that last summer.
With Sam Shields, Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward, Green Bay is one player away from having things covered – pardon the pun – in the dime. So who’ll be that player? The best option is probably Micah Hyde. The rookie lacks speed and is vulnerable to the deep ball, but his technique and instincts should allow him to succeed in the slot. The only question is whether he’ll be ready for such a key role this season.
If he’s not, the options are limited. Davon House will likely be the No. 4 corner, but he’s better suited to play outside. Moving Shields inside is a possibility, but that could weaken two positions. Hyde enjoyed a good offseason and he stood out on Friday. If his solid play continues, the dime has a chance to pay big dividends in 2013.
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