CHRIS BIDERMAN: What's the current status of the Packers' offensive line? Is that the biggest area of concern heading into Sunday?
Absolutely. Based on career starts at his position, the elder statesman of the group is right tackle Don Barclay, who started the final six games of last season (including playoffs) at right tackle as an undrafted rookie.
That's right. Six.
Knowing the offensive line simply wasn't getting the job done, coach Mike McCarthy during the offseason went the unorthodox route of flip-flopping his left and right sides. Either McCarthy is a genius or it's akin to shuffling the deck chairs on a sinking Titanic.
The big unknown is at left tackle, where rookie fourth-round choice David Bakhtiari will be squaring off with Aldon Smith and a spate of the NFL's top pass rushers on a weekly basis. That seems like a recipe for disaster, and part of me wonders if that's why McCarthy limited quarterback Aaron Rodgers to five series in the preseason.
With that said, Bakhtiari had a superb training camp and strong preseason. While he's the starting left tackle by default, he already was well on his way to winning the job at right tackle until moved to the left side to replace Bryan Bulaga (torn ACL). Bakhtiari went undefeated against four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews in one-on-one pass-blocking drills during camp. He's assignment-sure, tough and unflappable. As one scout told me this week, the moment won't be too big for him on Sunday.
The rest of the line is fine. Josh Sitton, a Pro Bowler at right guard, is on the left side. T.J. Lang and Barclay form the right side. Evan Dietrich-Smith, who replaced veteran Jeff Saturday late last season, is the center. With Barclay playing extensively in seven games, the Packers saw their rushing output increase by 10 yards per game and the team scored 10 of its 12 rushing touchdowns.
Because of injuries, the Packers have fourth-round picks at left tackle, left guard and right guard, and college free agents at center an right tackle. Contrast that to the 49ers' line, with three first-rounders in the lineup.
CHRIS: How has Eddie Lacy looked in the early going? Will he finally be the feature back Green Bay has lacked over the last few seasons?
Who knows. About all I can tell you is he's the feature back by default right now.
Eddie Lacy lowers his head against the Chiefs.
Denny Medley/USA Today Sports I'll answer your question this way before circling back to Lacy.
If you would have asked me that question three months ago, I would have told you that the Packers moved Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle. That was done with pass protection in mind but Bulaga would have been a huge upgrade over last year's left tackle, Marshall Newhouse, in the run game.
With Bulaga's switch, 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod returning to start at right tackle, an upgraded backfield with the addition of second-round pick Lacy and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin, the return of running back DuJuan Harris (who was the Packers' best offensive player in the playoff loss at San Francisco) and the free-agent signing Matthew Mulligan at tight end, I would have thought the running game had a chance to be a major, major asset.
Instead, it's all kind of crumbled. Bulaga is out for the season with a torn ACL. Sherrod is on PUP because the broken leg sustained late in 2011 hasn't healed to the team's liking. Harris just had season-ending knee surgery. Because of that, the Packers are going with a rookie fourth-round pick at left tackle and a 2012 undrafted free agent at right tackle. I bet there isn't a team with a tackle duo that young and with that modest of draft credentials.
Coach Mike McCarthy, who has handled injuries with aplomb during his tenure — including the Super Bowl run of 2010, when they had the most injuries in the league — looked like he had been kicked in the ribs when announcing Harris was done. Mulligan didn't make the team. That leaves Lacy as the big run-game upgrade, because Franklin didn't do much in camp. The only other back on the roster is James Starks, who has missed more games than he's played.
Still, the run game has a chance to be an asset for one reason: Lacy. Lacy ran against eight-in-the-box defenses on practically every carry at Alabama. With Rodgers, he'll never see eight in the box. In the second preseason game at St. Louis, Lacy ran wild. Here's a 230-pound man dodging unblocked defenders in the backfield with spin moves. On one play in that game, it took eight defenders to get him to the turf after a gain of about 15.
CHRIS: Jermichael Finley could be a huge weapon for the passing game if he's able to put it together. Do you see him taking those steps this season?
BILL: I can't believe I'm going to say this, but yes.
Finley's entering the final season under contract. From an individual perspective, a big season will mean a big payday on the free-agent market for a player who has been a perpetual tease. From a team perspective, the Packers badly need Finley to become a go-to player with almost 1,170 receptions lost in Greg Jennings (Vikings) and Donald Driver (retirement).
Finley took care of business during the second half of last season, playing his best ball since his big start to 2010 was derailed by a season-ending knee injury.
Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot played a crucial role in Finley's second-half revival last season. With Fontenot turning mundane drill work into games and spending extra time on the side during special teams periods, Finley finally started catching the ball consistently and making plays with the ball. In the first nine games, according to ProFootballFocus.com, he caught 29-of-45 targeted passes for 271 yards, averaged 3.4 yards after the catch per reception, and had seven drops. In the final seven games, he caught 32-of-40 passes for 396 yards, averaged 6.2 yards after the catch per reception, and cut his drops to two.
He had an excellent training camp and really seems in tune with Rodgers. With Finley, you never really know. He's a player whose confidence — despite the brash talk — seems to ebb and flow. If he comes out of the gate fast — both this season and on a weekly basis — he could be in that second group of tight ends behind the likes of Vernon Davis.