Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
When the Green Bay Packers met the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4, they were 5-2 and looked like a Super Bowl contender, mostly because one can picture any team with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback winning a championship.
We know what happened that night. Rodgers broke his collarbone. The Bears and Lions gagged away the NFC North when he was gone, allowing Rodgers to come back and beat the Bears and win the division in Week 17 on a fourth-down pass to Randall Cobb that will live in the rivalry's lore (enjoy the clip below, Packer fans).
We also know that San Francisco came into Lambeau Field the next week and beat the Packers and exposed some of their defensive weaknesses. It was the fourth time in two years the 49ers have done that.
Rodgers is back and healthy. He'll be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL again, and with running back Eddie Lacy coming off an offensive rookie of the year season, the offense will be balanced and scary. But is the defense good enough?
Green Bay's defensive ranks last year were as follows: tied for 24th in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed, tied for 23rd in first downs allowed, 24th in passing yards allowed, tied for 27th in passing touchdowns allowed, tied for 26th in interceptions, 25th in rushing yards allowed and 25th in rushing touchdowns allowed. The Packers tied for the sixth-most yards per pass play allowed and tied for the fourth-most yards per rushing attempt allowed.
You can blame an offense that for most of the second half of the season couldn't sustain drives, or some injuries including losing Clay Matthews for five games. But the fact is, the defense wasn't very good and is now relying on 34-year-old Julius Peppers to be the elixir.
The offense might be good enough to carry the day, or the defense might find a way to go from bad to average and that's enough. But as we've seen in the last four meetings against the 49ers, the Packers are a good team that seems to be a little short of great.
Of course, they're also a team nobody wants to face in January, thanks to Rodgers.
2013 review in less than 25 words: The Packers went 8-7-1, somehow surviving Rodgers' injury to beat the Bears for the NFC North crown in the final week.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: It's about the same, because it's always about the same. Losing center Evan Dietrich-Smith and receiver James Jones isn't reason for panic. Grabbing Peppers might not be a reason for celebration, unless there was some reason he disappeared with the Bears last year at age 33.
The draft pick of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was very fortunate and fills a huge need. But as long as Ted Thompson is general manager, the Packers will sit out most of free agency. And if the Packers don't win another title in Rodgers' prime, I doubt the Packers fans who defend the approach now will be reminiscing about the days when the Packers were fiscally responsible and had all that glorious unused cap space in Rodgers' prime. Last I checked, they don't print "Unused Salary Cap Space Championship" T-shirts.
Best offseason acquisition: It's Peppers, because who else would it be? (Clinton-Dix is also a fine answer because the Packers' safety play opposite Morgan Burnett has been putrid since Nick Collins' career-ending neck injury.) Peppers might have just had a one-year slump that happened to come when he was 33. But history isn't kind to pass rushers his age. Only 14 players who are 34 years or older have had a 10-sack season. Some of the great pass rushers, like Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Kevin Greene, posted double-digit sacks multiple times after age 33, and Peppers is an all-time great so he might do it too. But Peppers will be playing the Packers' "elephant" position, which requires playing plenty of him in a two-point stance for the first time in his career. Given the new position, his age and the memory of last year, there's no guarantee Peppers will provide the defensive help Green Bay needs.
Achilles heel: The Packers' 2012 and 2013 first-round picks were supposed to help the front seven. That hasn't happened yet, and that's one reason the defense wasn't good last year. Outside linebacker Nick Perry has been injured and ineffective his first two years. Defensive end Datone Jones was mostly a non-factor as a rookie last year, although 3.5 sacks in limited time last season was promising. The Packers don't like to depend on rookies, and there's plenty of time for Perry and Jones to emerge. But the Packers could use that sooner rather than later.
Position in flux: Since 2009, the Packers have had Jermichael Finley as a dangerous (albeit somewhat inconsistent) threat at tight end. Finley is still unsigned after last year's neck injury, and if the Packers don't bring him back, the position will be weaker. Andrew Quarless is probably first in line, but he's not a game breaker. The Packers thought enough of Richard Rodgers to make him a third-round pick this year, so he bears watching. So does the talented but troubled Colt Lyerla, an undrafted free agent. But for the first time in a long time, the Packers went into training camp without a proven playmaker at tight end.
Ready to break out: The Packers have always had room for multiple receivers putting up good numbers. Without Jones, who went to Oakland, or Finley, someone besides Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will benefit. The first in line is Jarrett Boykin, who came out of nowhere to put up 681 yards last year when pressed into action, and a lot of that came when Rodgers was out. Another receiver to watch is Davante Adams, a second-round pick out of Fresno State. Any receiver who gets playing time with Rodgers at quarterback is a candidate for a breakout.
Stat fact: Lacy was the first Packer to be named offensive rookie of the year since running back John Brockington in 1971. Lacy gives the Packers the type of running game they haven't had since Ryan Grant's last big season in 2009. That makes the Packers' offense practically impossible to defend.
Schedule degree of difficulty: The Packers' schedule is tough, with games against the Patriots, Saints, Panthers, Seahawks and Eagles, and the NFC North battles on the slate. It starts off with a very hard test, at Seattle on the Thursday night regular-season opener.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: This is one of the few teams in the NFL that can win a Super Bowl. That's because of Rodgers. Even if the defense isn't incredible, Rodgers and the offense can put together a hot streak in the playoffs and win it all. The Packers have already used that recipe to win a Super Bowl once.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: The Packers experienced it last year when Rodgers went down with that collarbone injury. It was frightening watching the team's parade of backup quarterbacks play when he was out. Presuming that Rodgers will stay healthy, the other concern is that most games will be shootouts. The Packers will win their share, and it's hard to see this team missing the playoffs if Rodgers is healthy, but just making the playoffs isn't good enough for the organization.
The crystal ball says: The Packers are good, although there's a team in the NFC North we like a little more. Green Bay will get in the playoffs, but unless the defense makes a big step forward, it's hard to forget how it has looked against the 49ers in the last four meetings. Does this team have the toughness on defense to go on a winning streak in January? Rodgers is great, but this won't be the year he gets back to the Super Bowl.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Cincinnati Bengals
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