GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers' third preseason game was only 22 seconds old, yet they already trailed Indianapolis by a touchdown.
On the Colts' first play from scrimmage Thursday night, running back Joseph Addai(notes) took a handoff from Peyton Manning(notes), stepped left, then patiently waited for a hole to open, like a man expecting an elevator. When Addai saw a gap, he zipped through it unimpeded. He was finally shoved out of bounds at the Green Bay 18. If the Packers and Colts had been playing two-hand touch, Addai would have still had a 49-yard gain.
Manning then hurried his team to the line without a huddle, took a quick snap in shotgun, looked off the defense to the left, then connected with Pierre Garcon(notes), who was alone in the end zone on the right. Garcon had darted straight through zone coverage, then found the ball waiting for him. Simple, really. Two plays, 67 yards, six points, 22 seconds elapsed.
Naturally, the Packers offense tied the game on their opening drive, because it's a robotic menace that cannot be stopped. Aaron Rodgers(notes) connected with Donald Driver(notes) on a 6-yard score, one play after receiver James Jones(notes) drew a 48-yard pass interference penalty. The touchdown was Rodgers' fourth of the preseason on just his 26th pass attempt. By the time Rodgers departed the game after two quarters, he'd added his fifth and sixth passing TDs of the exhibition season. He dissected the Colts, going 21-for-29 for 195 yards.
Following the game, Rodgers had this to say: "I just didn't like our rhythm tonight."
That is where the Green Bay offense is at, two weeks in advance of its regular-season opener at Philadelphia. Rodgers' team scored 28 first-half points against the defending AFC champs, eventually beating the Colts 59-24, and he didn't particularly care for the offensive rhythm.
The media loves to re-tell the Aaron Rodgers story – too often it's presented as a subhead within the Brett Favre(notes) story – but the truth is, he's no longer a variable. Instead, he's a known quantity. Rodgers is as dominant, as skilled, and as efficient as any quarterback in today's NFL. He's Exhibit A in the case for the Packers' legitimacy as a Super Bowl contender. If you think Rodgers has something left to prove, then you haven't been paying attention.
The Green Bay defense, on the other hand, still has a few questions to answer.
Sure, that unit ranked second in the NFL last year, allowing only 284.4 yards per game. The Packers also had the NFL's top run defense (83.3 YPG) and they led all teams in total takeaways (40). The regular-season stats were outstanding, particularly when you consider that it was Green Bay's first year in coordinator Dom Capers' scheme. Cornerback Charles Woodson(notes) was the AP's NFL Defensive Player of the Year following a nine-interception campaign, and Capers himself won the Sporting News' Coordinator of the Year award. The Packers allowed just 15.6 points per game in the second half of the season, winning seven of their final eight games. Rookie outside linebacker Clay Matthews(notes) emerged as a brilliant edge rusher (10 sacks), and inside linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) led the team in tackles (106), demonstrating that he'd recovered from an ACL injury suffered in 2008.
The Pack's D had the numbers, no question, and they collected plenty of individual trophies. All things considered, it was an excellent season – until Jan. 10.
Kurt Warner(notes) and the Cardinals eviscerated Green Bay's defense in the wild-card round. The Packers allowed 531 total yards and an average of 11 yards per pass play. Warner somehow finished the game with more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four). The Cardinals won an overtime epic, 51-45. If you enjoy missed tackles and missed calls, then it was an all-timer. The defeat left the Packers dazed, and the game casts a shadow long enough to reach into August.
At halftime of the preseason matchup with the Colts, Barnett said, "One of our biggest challenges is facing these good quarterbacks like [Manning], and we have to show we can do it."
The implication, clearly, is that the Packers defense demonstrated no competence against the good quarterbacks last season. Favre torched them twice, throwing seven touchdown passes and no interceptions while totaling 515 yards in two thoroughly hyped contests. Ben Roethlisberger(notes) shredded Green Bay in Week 15, completing 29 of 46 attempts for a ridiculous 503 yards, three scores and no picks. And, of course, there was the disaster in the desert.
So Barnett is right: If the plan is for the Packers to make it to suburban Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, then sooner or later they'll have to figure out how to stop an elite quarterback. (You'd think they'd benefit from facing one every day in practice). For the first quarter-and-a-half of the preseason faceoff against Indy, Green Bay's defense couldn't disrupt Manning.
The Colts' QB led a second scoring drive in the first quarter, highlighted by a pair of second-and-long completions to Reggie Wayne(notes), both of which resulted in first downs (and both of which victimized Packers corner Tramon Williams(notes)). On the last play of the quarter, Manning stepped away from a light pass rush and connected with Addai on a 33-yard gain. Two snaps later, Williams was beaten inside by Wayne on a slant for a 10-yard score. The Colts led 17-7.
On the Colts' next drive – after two short completions and a personal foul penalty on Barnett – Green Bay finally dialed up some pressure, achieving the intended results. The defense forced a pair of incompletions and eventually a punt. Capers has deliberately avoided putting exotic blitzes on tape throughout the preseason, for obvious reasons, but Manning wasn't exactly unnerved by bland four-man rushes.
When Indianapolis received the ball back – following a special teams TD by Green Bay – the Packers kept pressuring. Woodson blitzed from the left as Manning threw incomplete to tight end Brody Eldridge(notes). Then, on 2nd-and-10, Woodson came again from the right. Manning fired a short pass to the spot Woodson had vacated, but rookie safety Morgan Burnett(notes) jumped in front of the intended receiver and picked off the throw.
It's only preseason, obviously, but any success the Packers can find against a quarterback of Manning's quality seems significant. Green Bay managed to force a Manning fumble on the Colts' first drive of the third quarter, too.
"That's a great feeling," said Burnett of his pick. "I'm just very thankful and blessed right now."
Listed at 6-foot-2 and 337 pounds, Raji can be a force in the middle, the anchor of an excellent defensive line. He's plenty capable of invading the backfield and relocating the line of scrimmage. Raji destroyed a screen pass to Wayne in the first quarter versus Indy, dropping the Pro Bowl receiver for a 4-yard loss. But he was also erased on Addai's big run to open the game.
"Gap control," Raji said flatly, when asked about the play. "He's a pretty elusive back, and when you don't take care of your responsibilities, things like that can happen. The second play that they scored on was just miscommunication out there. Once we got that communication down, things got better."
They did not get so much better that head coach Mike McCarthy was satisfied, but that's no great surprise, not in August. In his postgame comments, McCarthy made reference to the fact that his defense was without Matthews (hamstring), defensive end Cullen Jenkins(notes) (calf), safety Atari Bigby(notes) (ankle) and corner Al Harris(notes) (knee).
"Well," he said, "defensively we haven't played the game with everybody on the field yet so the continuity is probably not where we'd like it to be right now. And that's something that we're probably going to have to establish in our practice structure leading up to the Philadelphia game.
"The injuries have kind of kept us from getting the continuity that you would like."
Matthews and Jenkins aren't believed to be in danger of missing the opener, though, and Bigby will be replaced by Burnett, a ball-hawker coming off a statement game. Williams figures to start at corner opposite Woodson, and … well, let's just say he's lucky that he won't see Wayne again this season, not unless the Colts and Packers meet in February.
But good luck finding a member of Green Bay's defense who's willing to look six months ahead.
"Aw, I'm trying to take it week to week," Raji said. "It's still the preseason. There's a long way to go. If you start thinking Super Bowl now, then you're not really doing your job, not really staying focused."
We know, without any doubt, that the Packers will have a ridiculous, Nintendo-style offense this year. Rodgers is 41-for-53 after three preseason games, with 470 passing yards, six touchdowns, zero picks and zero sacks. He's as good as it gets. In the wild-card game at Arizona, he delivered 423 yards, four passing TDs, one rushing TD, and 45 points – and his team still lost, because the opponent scored 51. The success of the 2010 team is squarely on the defense's shoulders.
"We can be a pretty good defense, no matter who we play," asserts Raji. "A lot of times – and not taking anything away from teams – when you don't execute from the jump, it's a lot harder for you to get things going on defense. But tonight, we made some mistakes, but we did a pretty good job of recovering."
And they did it with several starters absent, without the full playbook, against just the sort of quarterback who punished them in 2009. If they carry that level of play into the regular season, the offense will take care of the rest.