Great teams have a lot of good players, and good players cost a lot of money. With the new collective bargaining agreement meaning a tighter salary cap, the Green Bay Packers had some difficult personnel decisions to make during the offseason. In the end, they made little effort to retain left guard Daryn Colledge (five years, $27.5 million with the Cardinals), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million with the Eagles) and running back Brandon Jackson (two years, $4.5 million with the Browns).
Their absences were obvious during Friday night's 28-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Before the start of training camp, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin was lamenting the Packers' dangerously high sack totals.
In 2009, Packers absorbed a league-high 51 sacks. Thus, while the Super Bowl champions had plenty of reason to cheer after last season, nobody was popping open the bubbly when the sack total was decreased to an 11th-most 38. Philbin, who has been given more of a role with the linemen during an offseason shakeup of the offensive coaching staff, said 24 sacks – or 1.5 per game – was a reasonable number given Aaron Rodgers' penchant for extending plays.
Philbin didn't mean 24 sacks in the preseason.
A week after the Browns sacked Packers quarterbacks five times, Arizona dropped Rodgers, Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell a combined four times on Friday. On the Packers' second possession, Rodgers was forced to scramble once and was sacked twice.
While McCarthy said the battle to replace Colledge at left guard might go the full four-game preseason slate to determine, it wouldn't be surprising to see him settle on T.J. Lang beginning with Monday's practice. On that second drive, rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod – an All-American left tackle at Mississippi State -- failed to get a good initial punch on Cardinals end Calais Campbell and then didn't show quick enough feet to recover as Rodgers was sacked in short order.
Later on the drive, reliable Josh Sitton gave up a sack.
Equally troubling, neither of the candidates to be the third-down back shined in pass protection, either, with veteran John Kuhn failing to sustain his block one time and rookie Alex Green getting to the blitzer too late another time.
Meanwhile, the alarm bells are ringing on defense, too. With Jenkins in Philadelphia, Clay Matthews sidelined with tight hamstrings and Mike Neal injured again, Friday's game was a test to see who could rise to the occasion and provide a steady pass rush.
The answer? Nobody.
The Packers' only sack, by Ryan Pickett, came because of outstanding coverage in the secondary and quarterback Kevin Kolb's unwillingness to throw the ball away. Other than that, Kolb could have toasted some s'mores for himself and his teammates. The starting outside linebacker tandem of Erik Walden and Frank Zombo couldn't beat their blockers, nor could Brad Jones, Vic So'oto and Jamari Lattimore when they got their shot against the Cardinals' first team. With the Cardinals ganging up on B.J. Raji, none of the defensive linemen could get into the backfield, either, other than Jarius Wynn's one pressure against the backups.
Asked on Thursday if he had enough pass rush, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said: "We know there's certain packages that we aren't going to have a great pass rush. When we put those three 340-, 350-pound guys in there, they aren't going to be jetting around and chasing the quarterbacks around. I think that's where you have to have enough flexibility to say, ‘If we're trying to get some pass rush, we've got to get our speed guys out there and try to outspeed them.' That's the big challenge as you move along. It'll change from week to week, based on who you're playing. Our package the first week against (the Saints' Drew) Brees might be different than what'll be against Cam Newton or whoever Carolina's starter is the second week."
Obviously, a healthy Matthews changes the dynamic, and if Neal can ever stay healthy, he potentially could form a formidable tandem with Raji. And Capers' history suggests he'll manufacture a pass rush through scheme, if need be. Still, one reason why the Packers' defense has been so successful is that he's had the personnel to get after the quarterback without sacrificing coverage.
It remains to be seen whether he'll have that luxury this season.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.