GREEN BAY, Wis. – When the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV, it was worth wondering whether that might be the beginning of a dynasty.
With a star quarterback in the prime of his career and enough young playmakers on both sides of the ball, talk of multiple titles didn’t seem all that far-fetched.
In the two seasons since quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ Super Bowl MVP-winning performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 6, 2011, the Packers have put together regular seasons of 15-1 and 11-5 that resulted in a pair of NFC North titles.
But in that same span, they have won only one playoff game -- last season’s wild-card round against a Minnesota Vikings team that had to make the last-minute switch to backup quarterback Joe Webb because injured starter Christian Ponder couldn’t go.
What’s more, in the two playoff losses -- to the New York Giants on Jan. 15, 2012, and to the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 12, 2013 -- the Packers were, as linebacker A.J. Hawk so bluntly put it this week, “blasted.”
The Packers gave up a combined 82 points in the two playoff losses. The 45-31 loss to the 49ers, who piled up 579 yards of offense, has put Dom Capers’ defense under intense scrutiny heading into this season in large part because 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the Packers look completely unprepared for the read-option offense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards (the most ever in a game by an NFL quarterback), including a 56-yard touchdown run that broke a 24-24 tie midway through the third quarter.
“We went to the playoffs twice and got blasted,” Hawk said. “We got beat bad. They took the game from us.
“Specifically, as defensive guys, we let our offense down, so that’s something as a defense we need to get some pride back and take it. That’s why I think this whole offseason, if you’ve watched anything, our practices or whatever we’re doing, it’s almost stepped up a notch.”
Capers has spent at least a small portion of almost every training camp practice working against the read-option, using some of what he and his staff learned during their March visit to College Station, Texas, where they met with the Texas A&M coaches to study the read-option.
While Capers has insisted throughout the offseason that his defense’s performance against the 49ers was an anomaly and pointed to the statistical improvement -- to 11th in yards allowed in 2012 after finishing dead last in 2011 -- the lasting image of his unit from last season is them chasing (and almost never catching) Kaepernick.
“We kind of hit the perfect storm there,” Capers said. “We’d made so many strides with so many young players, and it kind of went out the window. Because when you have a game like that, you kind of say, ‘How the hell did that happen?’ It can happen real easy in this league. That offense, the next week went for about 400 [yards], and then in the Super Bowl it was like a track meet after that blackout.”
When it comes to defending that offense, Capers’ defense will be tested early. The Packers open the season at the 49ers and then host the Washington Redskins in Week 2. If Robert Griffin III is back from his knee injury by then, they will face two read-option quarterbacks in as many weeks.
“I think every team right now is working on that. Every defensive coordinator is trying to figure out how to stop this pistol-read option,” Hawk said. “At the same time, offensive coordinators are working on new wrinkles to beat these defenses, so we’ll see. That’s what’s fun. Week 1 and Week 2, we get a nice, big test. We’re looking forward to it.”
Three hot issues
1. Protect the investment. There’s nothing more important to the Packers than protecting Rodgers, who signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension this offseason. Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times last season. Not all of the sacks were the fault of the offensive line; sometimes, Rodgers held the ball too long. Nevertheless, coach Mike McCarthy decided to revamp his front five, moving right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Josh Sitton to the left side. T.J. Lang went from right guard to left, and the right tackle position was declared an open competition that has yet to be decided.
"You say, 'Look, we have to protect the backside of the quarterback, so let’s put the two most accomplished guys to date there,'" offensive line coach James Campen said.
The problem is, one of those two most accomplished players is already a scratch. Bulaga injured a knee during Saturday night’s scrimmage and will miss the entire season.
The jury remains out on whether the line changes will work.
"It’s a progression," Campen said. "I’d say we’re climbing the hill now."
2. Find a running game: The Packers haven’t had a running back gain 100 yards or more in a regular-season game since Brandon Jackson rushed for 115 against the Redskins on Oct. 10, 2010. Their streak of 43 straight regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher is the longest in the NFL.
It got so bad last season that when opposing defenses often left both safeties deep and dared the Packers to run, they still couldn’t do it. They finished 27th in rushing yards per game using a handful of different backs who either couldn’t stay healthy or didn’t produce.
Enter second-round draft pick Eddie Lacy of Alabama and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin of UCLA. They have shared reps with two returners from last season, Alex Green and James Starks. It’s a safe bet Lacy will end up as the starter, but nothing has been decided yet.
“We have great competition," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "The preseason will all work itself out."
3. Jones’ impact: In April of 2012, general manager Ted Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players -- a clear reaction to finishing last in the NFL in yards allowed the previous season. He didn’t go as heavy on defense in this year’s draft but did use his top overall pick on UCLA defensive end Datone Jones.
The hope is that Jones can become a three-down player capable of playing end in Capers’ 3-4 defense and as one of two inside rushers in the nickel and dime packages.
Early returns suggest Jones will provide some immediate help, at least in the sub packages. Through the first week of practice, he has shown well in the one-on-one pass-rushing drill. By subjective count, he has won 10 of his 19 reps in that drill.
“You can see his quickness out there and some of the things that he’s been able to do," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "But some of the mistakes that he makes you don’t see."
Reason for optimism
The Packers have arguably the best quarterback in the league and a trio of receivers capable of getting open and running after the catch. Rodgers’ accuracy (67.7 percent over the past two seasons combined) and ability to take care of the ball (14 interceptions over the past two seasons combined) means the Packers will put up points. If receivers Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson, plus tight end Jermichael Finley, stay healthy, Rodgers has plenty of weapons.
Reason for pessimism
Injuries have hit the Packers hard in two of the past three seasons, and they have already begun to pile up this year. Bulaga's injury could ruin the plans for the offensive line. Two of their top three cornerbacks (Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward) remain sidelined. McCarthy was so concerned about his team’s inability to stay healthy that he examined every aspect of his operation this offseason -- from weight training to nutrition to practice routine. Still, they had 16 players sidelined for their scrimmage on Saturday.
The Packers stuck with Mason Crosby through a kicking slump last season, when in one stretch he missed 12 out of 24 field goals on the way to a league-low 63.6 percent conversion rate, but they might be running out of patience. Crosby had an abysmal performance in their scrimmage on Saturday night -- missing five of eight kicks -- including two from inside 40 yards. During live-kicking periods so far this summer, Crosby has made just 12 of 19 field goals (63.2 percent). For the first time since 2007, Crosby has competition in camp. Going head-to-head with Crosby, first-year kicker Giorgio Tavecchio has made 16 of 19 (84.2 percent), including six of seven in Saturday’s scrimmage. However, the issue with Tavecchio is leg strength. His longest make so far has been from 53 yards, but he hit the crossbar before it went through.
Few title contenders probably could remain as such if they lost their starting quarterback for any length of time, but the Packers appear especially vulnerable if anything serious happens to Rodgers. The competition between last season’s backup, Graham Harrell, and practice-squader B.J. Coleman hasn’t been decided. Regardless of who wins the job, neither has done anything to make anyone believe the Packers wouldn’t go in the tank if they lost Rodgers. Perhaps that is why the Packers decided to bring in veteran Vince Young for a workout on Monday.
M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian have been taking turns playing the safety spot next to Morgan Burnett, but no starter has been named yet. Regardless of who wins the job, both Jennings and McMillian will play. Jennings appears better suited to playing deep zone coverage, while McMillian looks better closer to the line of scrimmage.
Second-year defensive tackle Mike Daniels might be the most improved player on the roster. He has been a major force in the pass-rushing drills.
Backup receiver Jeremy Ross might make it possible for the Packers to take Cobb off kick-return duties and concentrate solely on receiver. Ross had a 49-yard kickoff return in Saturday’s scrimmage and has had no issues catching kickoffs or punts.
The Packers have a history of keeping an undrafted free agent or two on their 53-man roster, and the best candidate this season looks like outside linebacker Andy Mulumba of Eastern Michigan.