Shutdown Countdown: Green Bay Packers’ defense holds key to another title run

As long as the Green Bay Packers have Aaron Rodgers, they'll be contenders.

Whether the team around Rodgers is good enough to make it back to the Super Bowl is another story.

The defense in particular was really bad in a playoff loss to San Francisco. The Packers were as poorly prepared as any NFL team in recent memory. The special teams, especially kicker Mason Crosby, was inconsistent all season too. A few additions were made, but mostly through the draft since general manager Ted Thompson is never a major player in free agency.

Green Bay's season could have been different had the Seattle game not been taken away on a bad call, or if had closed out late losses at Indianapolis or Minnesota. One more win would have given the Packers a bye and home-field advantage in the second round. So the Packers aren't that far off. But the image of Green Bay's defense repeatedly being torched by Colin Kaepernick, or the defense being unable to get a key stop late against the Colts or Vikings, makes one wonder if the Packers are still on the same level as the other top teams in the NFC.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Greg Jennings signed with Minnesota, and even though Charles Woodson is aging rapidly, he's gone too. Same for Desmond Bishop, once a fantastic middle linebacker whose health caused Green Bay to cut him. There wasn't one major free agent signing, so unless the draft class really comes through (only two top 100 picks), the roster isn't better on paper.

Best offseason acquisition: Since the candidate list is pretty short, let's go with Datone Jones. The UCLA defensive end was drafted in the first round. He's a big lineman who can get into the backfield and disrupt, shown by his 19 tackles for loss last season. If Jones can have an instant impact and 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry improves this season, the Packers defense should be better.

Biggest hole on the roster: Green Bay's offensive line simply wasn't good enough last year. The Packers allowed 51 sacks, second most in the NFL, and no matter how many times coach Mike McCarthy tried, the running game was never established. They averaged just 3.9 yards per rush. Bryan Bulaga moves from right tackle to the left side, and maybe that will help. Guard Josh Sitton moves from the right side to the left, as well. Moving the pieces around is nice, but they're still the same pieces from a year ago.

Position in flux: I won't get into the debate of whether Eddie Lacy is really out of shape or whether that picture that surfaced and got everyone fired up was just a bad angle. I didn't like the Lacy pick with or without that picture. The Packers are a pass-heavy team that badly needed defensive help, yet in the second round took a back who wasn't even the best on his college team last year (just wait until T.J. Yeldon gets here) and doesn't have elite athleticism. Johnathan Franklin, a fourth-round pick from UCLA, will be the better back. But the Packers invested a lot in Lacy, so he'll be given every chance to win the starting job. It will be an interesting battle to track through the preseason.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: There's a reason tight end Jermichael Finley doesn't have a huge long-term deal. He can be inconsistent and can be prone to bad drops. There is room for a tight end to produce well in the offense, and perhaps Green Bay will see something out of the backups to have a contingency plan if Finley isn't resigned. Andrew Quarless is finally back after a bad knee injury in 2011, but he's more of a blocker. Maybe this is finally the year D.J. Williams breaks out. The former Mackey Award winner at Arkansas has been hyped for a while – he has the talent to be a difference maker. But he has just nine career catches. He's running short on time to prove he can be a starter in the NFL.

Stat fact: Aaron Rodgers' career quarterback rating of 104.9 is a full eight points ahead of Steve Young, who is No. 2 on the NFL's all-time list (minimum 1,500 attempts). He's first all-time in career interception percentage (1.73), first in touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.72) and second all-time in career completion percentage (65.7). He's well on his way to being one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, and another championship or two would help that argument.

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: This is a team that should have Super Bowl expectations. Rodgers is the league's best player, he has a lot of receiving talent around him, and maybe the upgrade at running back makes the offense even better. The defense has to improve for Green Bay to get back to the level it was at in 2010 and 2011, and having stars like outside linebacker Clay Matthews, safety Morgan Burnett and defensive tackle B.J. Raji is a good place to start.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: The success of the season comes down to the front seven and the offensive line. If the Packers aren't stronger on defense, and if the offensive line still can't protect Rodgers (and the real nightmare scenario is obviously Rodgers missing some games; the Packers would sink like a rock without him), then Green Bay will once again be a good, not great, team. Considering the Packers' championship window is still open, another 11-5 record with a playoff blowout wouldn't be satisfying.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Jordy Nelson was a key figure in the Packers' 2010 Super Bowl run. He went crazy in 2011 when the Packers went 15-1, gaining 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. Last year he battled injuries, getting just 745 yards, and the Packers took a step back. So we know how important Nelson is to this team. He's even more important this year with longtime No. 1 receiver Jennings off to Minnesota. The Packers need Nelson to stay healthy and produce like he did during his breakout season two years ago.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants
11. Carolina Panthers
10. Washington Redskins
9. Cincinnati Bengals
8. Atlanta Falcons
7. Houston Texans
6. Baltimore Ravens
5. New England Patriots

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