The Super Bowl champs come back to begin the title defense against the New Orleans Saints, and we've got the in-depth preview here. Could the Pack be even better than the sixth-seed team that shocked the world in 2010? On the surface, it sure looks that way…
Green Bay's Offense
Head coach Mike McCarthy is the most formationally diverse play-caller in the NFL today, and if you add the multiple fronts and secondary looks that Dom Capers draws up for the defense, it could be argued quite convincingly that no team puts their starting 22 in more effective schematic positions than the Packers. From an offensive perspective, there's almost nothing the Packers won't run at this point — McCarthy is like the Catfish Hunter of the NFL playbook; confident enough to throw the atypical waste pitch at the seemingly worst possible time with the best possible result. He will call a five-wide, empty backfield set on third-and-2 in the red zone (the Packers were one of two teams — the Buffalo Bills were the other — to go empty backfield more than 10 percent of the time), or he may go full house (a halfback and two fullbacks in the backfield) in a long-yardage situation.
McCarthy has the guts to do that stuff because he has the one thing everyone in the NFL wants these days — the best quarterback in the NFL. Yes, there is the Brady/Manning/Brees/Rivers argument, but when you consider what Rodgers did for this team down the stretch, and what he brings to the table, it's almost impossible to argue. He's been the best quarterback in the league under pressure over the last two seasons, a fact you didn't have to tell the Atlanta Falcons in last year's playoffs. It is literally to the point now where you're almost better not blitzing him and taking your chances in coverage. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is blitz-happy in his most passive moments, and that will be a key battle Thursday night.
Rodgers now has complete command over a set of receivers running route concepts that could be compared to spread concepts at times — they went four-wide or more 19 percent of the time, which was third-highest in the NFL. The running game was almost superfluous until James Starks hit it big late in the process — in the Packers' six final regular-season games (all of which they had to win for a shot at the postseason), Rodgers was their leading rusher in three of them. Greg Jennings is the primary receiver, but it's the return of tight end Jermichael Finley everyone's excited about. Finley missed most of the 2010 regular season and 2011 regular season with knee and ankle injuries, but his implementation in this offense could make it almost illegal. Adding a seam-stretching threat to Rodgers' murderous accuracy and the Packers labyrinth route ideas would be just about unfair. With or without Finley, this is Rodgers' offense -- of that, there can be no doubt.
Green Bay's defense
Virtually everything Dom Capers shows you on defense isn't what it seems — the Packers seem to run a lot of 4-2-5 nickel that's actually a set of 2-4-5 concepts with an absolute wild card in cornerback/safety/blitzer/joker Charles Woodson. The pass pressure doesn't just come from Clay Matthews, though there's no doubt that Matthews is one of the two or three best in the business; it also comes from Woodson. Last year, Woodson blitzed through different gaps a lot, and amassed eight quarterback hurries in the process. Matthews' hidden power comes in his ability to stunt inside as he did for Pete Carroll at USC — he's actually put up as many sacks by slipping through the A-gap as he has by blasting outside. B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett are the inside forces in those less conventional fronts, while Mike Neal will try to replace Cullen Jenkins, who took big money from Philadelphia. Jenkins was the Packers' best option when they wanted to get big in more base 4-fronts.
While Woodson plays a different kind of Polamalu/Reed role in the slot, cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields man the outside very well. Williams has become one of the best in the league — he and Woodson will try to give Drew Brees fits by being where he doesn't expect. Nick Collins is the ball-hawking safety we all remember from the Super Bowl, but the real star of this defense is the scheme — Capers fits his personnel to his playbook so well, he's able to make sub-stars out of seeming afterthoughts like Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Vic So'oto, this year's preseason standout.
There aren't many defenses that can give Drew Brees pause, but this is one of them, because as smart as Brees is, he's going to see some optical illusions out there.
(Unless otherwise indicated, all formation data comes from Football Outsiders.)