Key upgrades for Packers in 2013
By Steve Palazzolo | Pro Football Focus
~Questions abound after the Green Bay Packers’ 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Despite the 49ers’ superior record, many analysts expected the Packers to come out of San Francisco victorious and primed for another Super Bowl run behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Instead, Green Bay is left to wonder how it gave up an astounding 579 yards in the losing effort as it searches for solutions this offseason.
The truth is that the Packers aren’t nearly as bad as Saturday’s game would lead you to believe, though they certainly have holes on the roster that must be addressed. For starters, the front seven can play better, both on the defensive line and at the outside linebacker spot opposite Pro Bowler Clay Matthews.
Offensively, it’s hard to complain about a unit that averaged 27.1 points per game, but there is still room for improvement. The offensive line has had more success in pass protection than it’s had moving defenders off the ball, leaving the Packers without the necessary running attack to take some pressure off Rodgers.
If there’s a quarterback who can handle that load, it’s Rodgers, but if Green Bay hopes to make another Super Bowl run, it can find better balance in a few key spots.
It’s not as if the Packers haven’t tried to find an outside linebacker to pair with Matthews, as they spent their first-round pick in last year’s draft on Nick Perry. He was entrenched as the starter at LOLB on opening day, but after a rough start, Green Bay quickly realized that he may not be ready for a full-time role. Perry played all 67 snaps in his debut in what turned out to be his worst game as a pro. The Packers decreased his workload, and he showed signs of improvement, both as a pass-rusher and a run defender, before going down to injury in Week 6. Perry’s development will go a long way toward shoring up perhaps the biggest weakness on the roster.
The other options at outside linebacker simply failed to produce. Erik Walden replaced Perry and was unable to provide any pressure while getting controlled against the run. His Pass Rushing Productivity (loosely defined as how often he was able to affect the quarterback via pressure, explained in more detail here) of 4.9 ranked last among the top 32 qualifiers at 3-4 outside linebacker. Undrafted rookie free agent Dezman Moses filled in for an injured Matthews in Week 9 before moving to more of a situational role later in the season. Like Walden, Moses was unable to consistently pressure the quarterback, ranking 24th in PRP at 6.5.
Much like pitching in baseball, teams can never have enough pass rush talent, so despite Perry’s presence on the roster, it would not be a surprise to see the Packers acquire more options at the position. It’s been a revolving door of subpar play opposite Matthews for the past few years, and since the Packers rarely overspend in free agency, if the right player falls to them in the draft, don’t be surprised if they spend another premium draft choice on an edge rusher.
Packers Pass-Rushers in 2013
|Name||Pass Rush Snaps||Sk||Ht||Hu||Total Pressure||PRP||PRP League Rank (32 Qualifiers)|
Another position where depth is essential is the defensive line. Green Bay lacks a game-changing presence in their front three, especially given B.J. Raji’s erratic play on a week-to-week basis. After ranking as our worst defensive tackle in 2011, he came on strong late in the season before getting neutralized by the 49ers on Saturday. Given his struggles and heavy workload in 2011, the Packers tried to keep him fresh; this season, he played only 68 percent of the team’s snaps as compared to 79 percent last season. They certainly got more production out of him, but more is expected out of their 2009 first-round pick.
The other members of the defensive line proved to be one-dimensional players. Ryan Pickett does a nice job against the run, as his plus-12.3 grade attests (PFF’s grading methodology is explained here), but he is very limited as a pass-rusher, picking up only six pressures on his 269 pass-rush attempts. Defensive ends C.J. Wilson and Jerel Worthy were similarly stout against the run yet ineffective getting after the quarterback.
One pleasant surprise was DE Mike Neal, who played a career-high 323 snaps as he has battled injuries throughout his three years in the league. He led the defensive line with 27 total pressures and did so on only 247 attempts.
Whether the answer lies on the edge or from the defensive line, Green Bay must find players who can take the pressure off Matthews and diversify one of the league’s most one-dimensional pass rushes.
It’s been a fantastic career for Jeff Saturday, but he graded as one of the worst centers in the league (28th at minus-5.0) this season. Even his team saw his decline in play — benching him after 15 games as the starter — yet the Pro Bowl voters still deemed him a worthy selection on name recognition alone. He was easily one of the least deserving players named to the team, but the point remains that the Packers felt the need to replace him late in the season.
Dietrich-Smith is a restricted free agent this offseason. He’s likely to return, but the Packers could look to bring in another veteran to compete for the job.
Another yearly discussion in Green Bay centers on the running game and the inability to find consistency on the ground. The Packers have gone through a number of running backs, both in free agency and the draft, yet no one has emerged either because of injuries or general ineffectiveness. Having Rodgers at quarterback masks a lot of the offense’s deficiencies, but as the New England Patriots have shown this season, it’s never a bad thing to have a top-notch ground attack to complement elite quarterback play.
While the search for a running back will continue, the offensive line deserves its fair share of the blame for an inability to get a push in the running game. Saturday was certainly a major culprit, as his minus-13.9 run block grade ranked last among centers, but the finger-pointing goes beyond just him. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse improved dramatically as a pass-blocker this season, but he too graded at the bottom at his position in run blocking at minus-12.5.
At tight end, run blocking has never been a strong suit for Jermichael Finley or Tom Crabtree, and that trend continued this season as they graded at minus-2.4 and minus-7.7, respectively. The best running teams usually have a tight end capable of sealing the edge, but that presence is lacking in Green Bay.
Again, scoring 27 points per game is nothing to sneeze at, but this offense can be downright scary if it can add balance to complement the passing game.
Key Offseason Decision
The Packers likely have too much talent at the wide receiver position to warrant giving a big contract to pending free agent Greg Jennings. Jordy Nelson proved in 2011 that he is capable of playing among the league’s best, while James Jones took full advantage of his extra playing time with the most productive season of his career. Green Bay also made it a point to feature second-year receiver Randall Cobb, as he played all over the formation, including 598 snaps in the slot where the oft-injured Jennings normally resides.
Therein resides one of the problems of signing Jennings to a rich free-agent contract. While he has been a fantastic weapon for Rodgers over the years, he’s been unable to stay on the field the past two seasons and the Packers have the pieces in place to replace his production. It’s unlikely that Jennings is a Packer in 2013.
Packers Receivers in 2012
|Packers WRs||Targets||Receptions||Yards||Yds/Rec||TD||Yards/Route Run||PFF Grade|
It’s certainly not time to panic in Green Bay after two straight playoff exits in the divisional round. Having one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the league is a great place to start, but the defense also appears to be on the upswing after six rookies saw significant action this season. The secondary is loaded with potential playmakers, while the receiving corps is one of the most difficult to cover when healthy. While the offensive line demonstrated an inability to create running lanes, it has proved capable in pass protection, though Rodgers can make it difficult on them when he looks to make plays down the field.
Despite last week’s beating at the hands of the 49ers, the Packers were still well-equipped to make a Super Bowl run this season and still have enough pieces in place to be considered one of the favorites in the NFC going into 2013.
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