That the Packers are 2-1 after three games isn’t particularly disappointing, but it’s the way they got to that record that has some people a little concerned. Monday night’s debacle against Chicago exposed a pair of weaknesses that, if not fixed, could easily derail a potential march to the Super Bowl. Watching Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn run – and we use the term loosely – and watching the special teams cover – and again we use the term loosely – had to make even the most optimistic fans a little wary. That said, Green Bay is still tied for the second-best record in the conference and boasts four of the premier players in the entire league (Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson). So despite what happened at Soldier Field, it’s hard not to be excited about what’s to come.
Here’s a position-by-position analysis of the first three games:
Quarterback- Aaron Rodgers’ rating is 93.3 and he hasn’t even found his groove yet. While there are still some people who don’t consider the former Cal star to be an elite quarterback, such skeptics are now in the minority. Rodgers was absolutely brilliant in the loss to Chicago. A lesser player would’ve wilted under the constant pressure from Julius Peppers – or thrown panicked interceptions (cough, Brett Favre, cough).
Running Back – As Joni Mitchell once sang, “You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.” The Packers really miss Ryan Grant. The perennial 1,200 yard rusher suffered a season-ending injury in the first half of the opener at Philly and the ground game has come to almost a complete halt ever since. John Kuhn has plodded his way to 82 yards, but he’s as far from being a featured halfback as Oprah is from being on the cover of Maxim. Brandon Jackson has been a disappointment so far, but he’s not being helped by sporadic carries. The hunch here is that Jackson would be much more effective if given the chance to get into a rhythm. Of course, it also wouldn’t hurt if his offensive tackles actually blocked someone on occasion.
Fullback – Kuhn’s move to halfback, coupled with an injury to Korey Hall, has given Quinn Johnson a chance to start at fullback. The second-year player from LSU has been adequate. Johnson is a bruiser, but he may never be a particularly good fit in this scheme. He just doesn’t react well on the move. It would be a surprise if Hall doesn’t reclaim most of the snaps once he’s healthy.
Tight End – It’s scary just how good Jermichael Finley is. The 23-year-old might catch over 100 passes on a team with less talent at wide receiver. His blocking could be a little better, but that’s like complaining because Heidi Klum has a pimple. Donald Lee had better be a tremendous locker room presence because his play has been nondescript. He seems to have lost a step or two since ‘08 and even his blocking has fallen off. That’s why Tom Crabtree is getting quite a few snaps.
Wide Receiver – Donald Driver is averaging a paltry 7.2 yards per catch, but he’s been extremely effective. It’s hard to recall another 190-pound receiver more willing to go over the middle. Greg Jennings is off to yet another slow start with only 10 catches. He’s too good to catch only five passes in the past two games. It’s up to McCarthy to find ways to get him the ball. James Jones’ crucial fumble against the Bears marred what had been a solid September. He seems a lot more determined this season – almost like a man playing for his next contract. No. 4 Jordy Nelson could probably start for a third of the teams in the league.
Tackle – On first glance, Mark Tauscher appeared to play poorly against Chicago. Upon further review, saying he performed poorly would be kind. The 11-year veteran was awful, and while it’s too soon to panic, the coaches have to be concerned. While it’s no disgrace to be dominated by Peppers, it is quite alarming to struggle against the likes of Juqua Parker and Mark Anderson. The great balance and the ability to recover that made the former Wisconsin star one of the NFC’s best right tackles last decade seems to be missing. It remains to be seen whether Tauscher is off to a slow start or if he’s on his last legs. Left tackle Chad Clifton isn’t being paid over $7 million to run block, so it should come as no surprise that he’s struggling to move people off the line or deliver a back side cut. It is surprising, however, to see him labor in pass protection. Unless his knee gets – and stays – healthy, it’s only a matter of time before Bryan Bulaga finds his way into the starting lineup. The coaches won’t admit it, but they’ve lost faith in T.J. Lang.
Center – We were never big fans of Scott Wells, but it’s hard to find fault with his play through three games. He’s been very solid. It remains to be seen if he’s as impressive when the competition improves. The former Tennessee star has yet to face one of those massive tackles who have given him problems in the past.
Guard – Right guard Josh Sitton hasn’t been dominant, but he’s been the team’s best offensive lineman through three games. That probably won’t change. Sitton is very difficult to bull rush. He’ll be nearly impenetrable once he learns to use his hands better. Daryn Colledge has been adequate on the left side, but he’s the type of player that good teams are always looking to replace. In fact, if Clifton and Tauscher were healthier and/or playing better, the likelihood of Bulaga eventually supplanting Colledge would be greater.
Defensive Line – Give defensive ends Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett a ton of credit. The former is getting the job done with a broken hand and the latter has made a surprisingly smooth transition from nose tackle. That said, the Packers miss Johnny Jolly. Neither Jenkins nor Pickett is as stout at the point of attack and neither has Jolly’s innate ability to bat down passes. It’ll be interesting to see what Mike Neal adds to the mix. The rookie should make the veterans better by reducing their number of snaps. He should also provide some inside pressure. B.J. Raji has put together three solid games and should only improve as the season moves along. He’s still not quite as dependable vs. the run as Pickett was a year ago, but he’s far more explosive. Rookie C.J. Wilson isn’t ready just yet and Jarius Wynn is simply taking up space.
Outside Linebacker – Every dominant 3-4 defense has two great outside linebackers. The Packers are halfway there. Clay Matthews isn’t going to average two sacks a game, but he’s going to be a force each and every week. A player with his combination of size, speed and determination is what coordinators like Dom Capers spend their entire careers dreaming of. Brad Jones has battled nagging injuries since August and he hasn’t played nearly as well as he did in ‘09. It remains to be seen whether improved health will translate into improved play. One scout told us in May that Jones benefitted from fresh legs and the element of surprise as a rookie and he wouldn’t be as effective this season. We’ll see. In the meantime, undrafted free agent Frank Zombo has replaced him in the starting lineup. The former Central Michigan star didn’t embarrass himself against the Bears, but he has a ways to go. Zombo is already a better pass rusher than Jones, but he’s not as instinctive against the run or as comfortable in space. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the two youngsters eventually share the position.
Inside Linebacker – Nick Barnett is a solid all-around player, but he’ll never be a force against the run. He simply lacks the size to consistently get the batter of guards and centers. Barnett’s quickness – not to mention playing behind a massive defensive line – allows him to survive at just over 230 pounds. He’s been more effective in coverage than as a pass rusher through three games. A.J. Hawk has played like A.J. Hawk. On the positive side, he’s shown improvement in coverage. On the negative side, nobody tries harder but gets as little accomplished as a blitzer. Brandon Chillar has done little thus far to justify his big contract extension.
Cornerback – Charles Woodson is the reigning defensive player of the year, but Tramon Williams has been the better corner through three games. The former Louisiana Tech star has been excellent in coverage and he hasn’t been afraid to throw around his undersized body. But before we start punching his ticket to the Pro Bowl, let’s see how he does against the better quarterbacks on the schedule. Woodson needs to step it up. He’s been good, but he needs to be great. Whether his relatively slow start is due to a nagging toe injury is hard to determine. Undrafted free agent Sam Shields hasn’t been tested all that much, but he’s clearly gotten better each week. That’s a positive sign. He’s going to be a very good player – it’s just a matter of when. The fact that Pat Lee is now behind Jarrett Bush is a pretty strong indication that his time in Green Bay is nearing an end.
Safety – The Packers have missed Atari Bigby. He was at his best against teams without a quality quarterback. Morgan Burnett’s outstanding range should be an asset when Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan come up on the schedule. Until then, he needs to be a lot more physical. His reluctance to hit has and will continue to be a problem against offenses that like to pound the rock. Nick Collins hasn’t made many plays, but he’s been extremely solid. There might not be a better all-around safety in the NFC. Derrick Martin has looked much more comfortable than he did a year ago.
Specialists – We were never sold on Tim Masthay, and through three games, he’s been only marginally better than Jeremy Kapinos. He needs to get more hang time on his punts. Mason Crosby is off to a strong start. His only miss in six field goal attempts came when the line broke down and allowed Peppers to come through almost untouched and block a 37-yard attempt. Jordy Nelson and Tramon Williams have been reliable and productive on returns. The special teams were atrocious against the Bears. It remains to be seen whether that was an aberration or simply a return to the norm.