Year 2 AB (After Brett) in Green Bay saw the Packers take a big step forward with Aaron Rodgers under center. The impressive statistics of his first year bore fruit with an increase in the win column and a postseason appearance.
The Packers flashed the ability to be a top team in 2009 but the next step is for their young players to display the consistency to push them on to better things.
Like an NFC North crown perhaps?
THE GOOD NEWS
1. Brett who?
Aaron Rodgers is in that bracket of quarterbacks that can compete for league MVP honors. Rodgers was among the top quarterbacks as a passer (sixth in our passing rankings) and a runner (tied for the tops alongside David Garrard).
In terms of consistent quality games Rodgers wasn't quite up to Phillip Rivers‘ level last season but he wasn't far short either — his ability under pressure and when blitzed was astounding. His NFL QB rating was above 100 when pressured last year and only marginally lower than his rating when not pressured (106.7 with no pressure, 103.5 under pressure). He was even better when faced with the blitz, with an NFL QB rating of 121.4, 16 touchdown passes and only 3 interceptions.
Rodgers appears to have everything you look for in a quarterback, and with a touch more poise in the pocket (which should come if the pass protection of the line improves) the Packers will continue to have one of the league's best under center.
2. The Capers caper is complete.
The Dom Capers-inspired move to the 3-4 worked out exceptionally well for the Packers, as they found themselves half of an outstanding linebacking corps in the shape of Clay Matthews and Nick Barnett. Barnett ranked 27th in our inside/middle linebacker gradings in the 4-3 for Green Bay in 2008, but only trailed Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis in 2009. Barnett improved in every area of the game, with strong run support (+13.8) and pass coverage (+5.6) as well as showing a flair for timing blitzes and beating blocks. He applied pressure on 19 of his 115 blitzes in 2009.
At outside linebacker Matthews was an absolute revelation, improving as the season went on to become one of the most complete 3-4 outside linebackers in the league (fifth overall). In particular, a three-week stretch to close the season against the Steelers, Seahawks and Cardinals resulted in 2 sacks, 8 hits and 7 pressures. His health is a concern, with reports having him missing all of training camp — backup Brady Poppinga was a liability in 2009 (-9.0 in just 266 snaps)
THE BAD NEWS
1. Rodgers still might be running for his life.
Certain players (Josh Sitton especially, with a +13.2 ranking at right guard) showed promise but there remains issue. Chad Clifton solved the problems at left tackle in terms of pass protection, but how long can he be relied upon at age 34 with a history of injury? And can he improve upon a year of sub-standard run blocking that earned him a -4.6 grade?
The oft-injured Clifton and Mark Tauscher seem unlikely to make it through an entire season, so the Packers will be hoping for better performances from their backups when required. Last year Allen Barbre (33 total pressures allowed in 319 pass blocks), T.J. Lang (-9.1 pass-block rating in 177 snaps) and Daryn Colledge (who was feasted on by Antwan Odom when he filled in at tackle) all struggled, so first-round addition Bryan Bulaga will probably need to find his way into the lineup for there to be any real improvement.
2. The defensive line wasn't looking too Jolly anyway.
The loss of Johnny Jolly to off-field woes has been overstated after an unimpressive year that saw him finish with a -9.8 overall grading. But there remain concerns about what is left, and the composition of it. A look at all the top 3-4 teams shows a strong run-stuffing presence at nose tackle, with players like Vince Wilfork (+14.6), Jay Ratliff (+13.0) and Aubrayo Franklin (+11.0) all anchoring their lines.
It'll come down to how B.J. Raji deals with life as a nose tackle after a less-than-stellar debut year as a 3-4 end. He wasn't terrible, but who's to say he can play on the nose. The guy he has swapped places with, Ryan Pickett, was hardly inspiring (his +3.0 run-stuffing rating was one of the lowest for a traditional 3-4 nose tackle), so the Packers are left hoping for the best with no proven player on the roster.
Can the offensive line step up? Can Rodgers continue his fine form? Will the defense improve on its debut year in the 3-4? The Packers made huge strides last year and the question isn't simply whether they can replicate it, but if they can surpass it and dethrone the Vikings atop the NFC North. It looks like one of the most intriguing battles of the season.