If you felt good about the Green Bay Packers after their preseason opener against Cleveland, you have to be over-the-moon about this team’s potential after Saturday night’s showing against Buffalo.
I use the word potential because it’s still the preseason, so we have to temper our excitement.
But only a little bit.
The Packers’ starting units on both sides of the ball, in fairly extended playing time, were sharp, aggressive and just plain dominant. Green Bay flat out overwhelmed Buffalo in every facet of the game in a 31-21 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the score would indicate. While some teams use this time of year to work on new plays or build chemistry, Green Bay seems to be using it to prove to anyone who will listen just how far 2008 is in the rearview mirror.
Take the offense, for example. You could tell last season that the Pack had the potential to become a top-five offense in the league. But the group always seemed to be just a hair off in one area or another, be it offensive line play, injuries, red zone production or the two-minute offense.
Those problems did not exist Saturday night. On the field for five drives, the starting offense hit paydirt on three of them. It all started up front. The o-line, a much maligned group last season (rightfully so), did its job in both pass protection and run blocking. That allowed Aaron Rodgers to show that, if he could play well without solid protection last season, he could become an elite quarterback with it this season.
Rodgers connected on 8-of-9 attempts for 98 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His preseason numbers, if you’re interested: 13-of-19, 200 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
Of course, some things are the same from last season to this, namely the group of offensive weapons Rodgers has to work with. But even that group has improved, mainly because of the presence of one Jermichael Finley. With three catches for 46 yards, Finley once again showed he is too big for your average DB and too fast for your average linebacker. He is the X-factor this offense lacked last season. If you focus too much on Donald Driver or Greg Jennings, Finley is quickly showing that he can kill you, as well. And don’t forget about Jordy Nelson, James Jones, etc. etc.
It’s not all about the passing game, though. These Packers look like they can run almost as effectively. There was Ryan Grant, running the ball 10 times for 43 yards and a touchdown. He looks to be running with a chip on his shoulder, out to prove that last season wasn’t indicative of his true abilities. Speaking of players with something to prove, how about Tyrell Sutton? With 11 carries for 49 yards and a touchdown, Sutton continues to show that the race for the No. 3 running back spot has three competitors. Again, could the Pack actually keep four running backs? I don’t know, but it’s a position that requires depth and if you have four good running backs, maybe you keep them all.
Okay, okay, enough about the offense. Offense puts up the highlight plays and puts butts in the seats, but the real reason this team stumbled last season was its defense.
Dom Capers seems intent on making sure there won’t be a repeat there.
With an aggressive scheme that thrives on creating, in the words of one friend of mine, “mayhem”, Green Bay made Buffalo look about as confused as a frat guy who has to take a final exam after spending the whole semester drunk.
The Packers forced five turnovers – four in the first half alone – and showed that, while everyone seems to think it will take this group forever and a day to pick up the 3-4, maybe the Pack had the talent to run the scheme all along.
Think about it. Ted Thompson brought in playmakers with speed and aggressive tendencies. Then those players were jammed into a vanilla system that forced them to play it safe and do far too much reading and not enough reacting. That group, even in the amazing 2007 season, never fully seemed comfortable. Since Capers has come in, it seems like the players on the defense are just doing what comes natural to them.
And all the playmakers on that unit (Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji (RAJI!!), Aaron Kampman, Johnny Jolly, Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, etc. etc.) will now have many more opportunities to kill opponents’ drives and break games wide open. Jolly, for example, had two sacks last night and Collins deflected a pass that led to a Brady Poppinga pick.
Yes, there are still some things that are bothersome – Brian Brohm continues to look bad, the team still committed seven penalties for 74 yards and the third-string defense was lacking, to put it nicely.
But in a very short amount of time, the Packers have gone from a collection of talented question marks to a team capable of doing some great things in the season ahead.