Packers have eyes on trip to Jacksonville

With 11 starters returning on offense the Packers should be tough to handle.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:49 AM ET
By PFW staff | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

All 11 starters return from an offense that perhaps came of age down the stretch in 2003, leading the Packers within sight of the Super Bowl. Now the Packers, with a new coordinator and a brave new philosophy on defense, view themselves as a bona fide contender to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXIX come February.

"There is no sense in beating around the bush," Brett Favre said at the start of training camp. "To me, it's either Super Bowl, or it was a bust. There's no sense in talking it down and working our way through. If we play the way we're capable of, I think we have a legitimate shot."

With Favre, RB Ahman Green, some ascending wide receivers and a crackerjack offensive line, the Packers can score points with the best of them. Their ability to stop people better than they did a year ago likely will decide the season.

Four days after the crushing OT loss to the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, head coach Mike Sherman fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Then he promoted secondary coach Bob Slowik and urged him to blitz even more than Donatell did.

Slowik has been taking risks in exhibition games. It's anyone guess what his blitz ratio will be once the regular season commences.

The problems for Slowik are the secondary and the defensive line. Unless LCB Mike McKenzie reports, Slowik will try to hold up outside with aging Al Harris and one of two rookies, Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas. It'll be bombs away if the young corners don't hold up any better than they did early in the exhibition season.

DRE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila gives Green Bay one pass-rushing threat, but is there another? Slowik tried a host of players opposite "KGB" in the dime package and had no answers at the conclusion of training camp.

Although the Packers needed Arizona's miracle victory over Minnesota just to reach the playoffs, they were an extremely dangerous and healthy team at year's end. That's why the half-dozen or so key plays in the loss to the Eagles might never be forgotten in Packerland.

"I think we were very close a year ago," said Sherman, who enters his fifth season with a .652 winning percentage (45-24). "I think we're closer this year than we've been since I've been here."

Quarterbacks: Brett Favre will turn 35 in October, an age when some quarterbacks start to slip. Favre maintains that he's still as good as anyone in the business. No one has given the Packers more than Favre during his 12 seasons, but the coaches now want something more: fewer interceptions. He has had nine interceptions compared to five touchdowns (54.3 passer rating) in playoff losses to St. Louis, Atlanta and Philadelphia the last three years. He had 22 picks in all a year ago, none more damaging than his high floater that S Brian Dawkins turned into the decisive interception for the Eagles. "He can still make whatever throw he wants to," QB coach Darrell Bevell said. "He's not back in his old days where it looks like it's shot out of a cannon, but his arm strength still is tops in the league." The Packers don't know how much longer Favre will play so they've done whatever they can to win now. The No. 2 job was supposed to go to former Browns top pick Tim Couch, but late in camp it appeared as though Doug Pederson, 36, would beat him out. Pederson still can move, knows the offense like the back of his hand and is pals with Favre, but his arm strength is marginal. Couch was horrible in the first two preseason games, showing abysmal velocity, decision-making and knowledge of the West Coast offense. Grade: A-minus.

Running backs: Green is a magnificent all-around back in the prime of his career. His idol was Walter Payton, and like "Sweetness," Green performs with uncompromising toughness. All business all of the time, Green runs with patience, vision, body lean, subtle inside cuts, speed to the edge and a punishing style. "Ahman obviously has the better speed, but Walter was so quick, so strong and so powerful that once he got into the secondary, he rarely got caught from behind," said new RB coach Johnny Roland, who also coached Payton in Chicago. Keep an eye on Green's left knee, though, as he suffered a bruised kneecap in the third preseason game. This corps of backs, however, is more than just Green. Najeh Davenport is a 250-pound tailback with good speed and adequate moves. Once again, Green will have the option of leaving the lineup whenever he needs a breather, and Davenport is the first back in. RB Tony Fisher will spell Green on some third downs. He's heady, a terrific receiver and a good blocker. At fullback, William Henderson and Nick Luchey figure to split time. Luchey brings more of a hammer as a lead blocker, but Henderson misses fewer assignments. Grade: A-plus.

Receivers: The Packers haven't had a genuine go-to wide receiver since 1998, which was Antonio Freeman's last great season. They still don't ... but Javon Walker, Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson form a solid trio. Walker didn't do much for his first one-plus seasons but hauled in six long bombs in the final eight games a year ago. He is mostly a sideline deep threat with size, speed and power, but the Packers expect more out of him on third downs this season. Driver has had a strong camp, more in line with his breakout 2002 season than his mediocre '03 campaign. He plays all over the field and is fearless in traffic just like Walker and Ferguson. Sherman says Ferguson is as tough-minded a player as he has ever coached. "He's the enforcer," Sherman said. Diminutive KR Antonio Chatman has improved as a wide receiver and probably will start the season as the No. 4 receiver. TE Bubba Franks is entering the final year of his contract. He has been to a pair of Pro Bowls, but it remains to be seen if the Packers will offer big money. Franks' lack of speed makes him somewhat ill-suited for the West Coast offense, and his blocking is no better than average. The Packers would like to get more from backup David Martin, who has the speed but has been a perennial tease. Grade: B-minus.

Offensive linemen: This is the Packers' best unit since the early 1960s, when OLT Bob Skoronski, OLG Fuzzy Thursday, C Jim Ringo, ORG Jerry Kramer and ORT Forrest Gregg were the scourge of the NFL. "We certainly don't want to take anything away from them," sixth-year OL coach Larry Beightol said. "But we do wish to emulate and maybe even try to get to where they were." By subjective analysis, the OL was responsible for just five of the team's 20 sacks in 18 games last season. On the ground, the group helped Green rush for 2,105 yards in 18 games as the Packers averaged 159.9 yards rushing in the regular season. This will be the fourth straight season together as starters for OLT Chad Clifton, OLG Mike Wahle, C Mike Flanagan, ORG Marco Rivera and ORT Mark Tauscher. Tauscher was the team's fifth-best starter in '03 but is another year removed from reconstructive knee surgery and was enjoying a strong preseason. Clifton was even better this summer, dominating Gbaja-Biamila on a daily basis. He is a gifted pass protector but probably was the least effective run blocker a year ago. Wahle and Flanagan, both outstanding athletes, could be concerns. Wahle suffered a badly bruised femur lifting Atlas Stones on July 2; Flanagan has been suffering from patellar tendinitis for months. Neither practiced in the first three weeks of camp but insist they'll be ready for opening day. The best backup is ORT-ORG Kevin Barry, who gets most of his playing time as a rip-snorting run blocker from tight end in the "U-71" package. C-OG Grey Ruegamer and OLG Steve Morley started most of the summer and made strides. Grade: A.

Defensive linemen: The Packers have had a hit-or-miss drafting record here in the last decade, the main reason why Sherman's teams have never had more than an average defensive line. On paper, the starting unit of DLE Aaron Kampman, NT Grady Jackson, UT Cletidus Hunt and Gbaja-Biamila at the DRE spot isn't bad. Nevertheless, there is room for concern. Kampman has had an excellent camp, but this is the first time he enters a season as the starter. Jackson, 31, self-destructed in Oakland and New Orleans, fights a never-ending battle with the bulge and had arthroscopic knee surgery in February. Hunt reported to camp out of shape, upsetting the coaches. And "KGB" is coming off a disappointing season in which he became too one-dimensional as a pass rusher and was a target for some opponents' ground game. The Packers need size, youth and explosiveness. Midway through camp, the best of the young players were DE Kenny Peterson, NT James Lee and rookie DE Corey Williams. Peterson, a bust as a third-round pick in '03, was fast and active this summer. Lee, a mountain of a man at 6-4, 325, has been finding the ball more than ever before and giving chase when he doesn't see it. Williams, a major surprise as a sixth-round pick from Arkansas State, could relieve "KGB" on some early downs at right end. Veteran NT Larry Smith is a decent inside pass rusher in the dime. DT Donnell Washington, a third-round pick, suffered a partially torn arch in the first week and isn't expected to contribute this season. Veteran DE Kenny Holmes has been added to the mix as a situational pass rusher. Grade: C.

Linebackers: In keeping with Slowik's battle cry, the Packers expect this group to rush the passer more often and more effectively than a year ago. SLB Hannibal Navies, MLB Nick Barnett and WLB Na'il Diggs all will blitz extensively. Navies does a respectable job at the point of attack but doesn't offer much as a pass rusher and hasn't made big plays. Barnett looked better this summer than he did last year. He struggled in coverage as a rookie but played the run about as well as his size would permit. Diggs was an outstanding rusher at Ohio State, but it never carried over to the NFL. He's a lusty hitter with good range and improving feel for the position. Paris Lenon and Torrance Marshall again look like the top backups. Lenon would run through a brick wall for the coaches but is a step slow. Marshall has all the physical attributes in the world but never has and probably never will see the football. Grade: C.

Defensive backs: If McKenzie were in camp, the Packers would be in good shape. He's one of the top 15 cornerbacks in the league, a bump-and-run specialist who fits Slowik's defense to perfection. But McKenzie remains a holdout and, late in camp, the Packers were struggling to replace him. Carroll and Thomas can run but remain raw. Carroll uses improper technique, and assistant DB coach Lionel Washington can't seem to get him out of some bad habits. Plus, Carroll is barely 5-foot-10, making him the smallest cornerback in Green Bay since the Terrell Buckley fiasco in the early 1990s. Thomas has ideal stature but doesn't seem to play the ball well in the air. As a result, veteran Michael Hawthorne was still holding onto the starting job on the left side. Hawthorne stands 6-foot-3 and has adequate coverage ability, but his lack of speed across the middle and overall quickness have been obvious in exhibition games. Harris, the starter on the right side, has had an excellent camp. He recognizes routes quickly, tackles OK and brings an attitude that his teammates love. He just doesn't have great catchup speed. At safety, Darren Sharper remains a premier player, and Mark Roman figures to be an upgrade over Antuan Edwards and Marques Anderson. Roman has good range and is a sure tackler in the open field. Grade: C.

Special teams: The Packers were in full panic mode about their punting situation after two exhibition games. They traded up to draft Ohio State's B.J. Sander in the third round but then watched in horror as he punted pathetically vs. Seattle and New Orleans. Sander doesn't have much of a leg and is inconsistent to boot. People in Green Bay have been bringing up the name of Ray Stachowicz, the Packers' third-round pick in 1981 who lasted two seasons before being run out of town. Former Redskins P Bryan Barker was signed to push Sander. Elsewhere, the Packers are solid. PK Ryan Longwell is below average on kickoffs, but given the weather conditions he deals with, he might be as accurate as any field-goal kicker in the business. LS Rob Davis, 35, remains adequate. Davenport is a superb kickoff returner. Chatman doesn't make mistakes on punt returns but isn't dynamic, either. Grade: C-plus.

Pro Football Weekly Material from Pro Football Weekly.
Visit PFW's web site at http://www.profootballweekly.com

ALSO SEE