On offense, the Green Bay Packers are a finely tuned race car.
All 11 starters are back from a unit that led the NFL in scoring. That includes two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a receiver corps and offensive line that remained intact with the free-agent re-signings of Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga.
On defense, well, it’s not a lemon, but the yearly annual maintenance never seems to keep the cylinders firing or the four wheels on the road.
The Packers kicked off training camp on Thursday as a favorite — if not the consensus favorite — to win Super Bowl 50. The driving force, of course, is an offense led by the NFL’s career leader in passer rating (Rodgers), two 1,200-yard receivers (Cobb and Jordy Nelson) and a running back with more than 1,100 rushing yards and 1,500 total yards (Eddie Lacy). Unless you consider backup left tackle and depth at tight end to be pressing concerns, this training camp should be a nice, smooth ride.
“I’m sure you guys will have your own expectations and oddsmakers do, as well, but we have high expectations for ourselves and we push each other to be great,” Rodgers said while surrounded by dozens of reporters and cameras at his locker following Thursday’s practice. “I think it starts in training camp when the chemistry is coming together, the team’s coming together and you start to figure out who the key players are going to be, who the guys are that are going to make those jumps from Year 1 to Year 2, and we expect our veterans to continue to play at the level they’ve played at.”
No one is resting on their laurels on offense. Rodgers rattled off third down, red zone and giveaways as emphases. Green Bay finished third, 10th and first in those categories last season.
“You can always improve,” Nelson said. “We didn’t score on every possession. That’s our No. 1 goal. It’s being consistent and eliminating mistakes. I think we do a great job obviously taking care of the ball, but you can always get better in those areas, if it’s the drops, if it’s the missed assignments. It’s the little things, and that’s where you’ve got to pick yourself apart individually. If you improve individually, the whole unit is going to improve.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has pointed to a fast start as one of his priorities after going 2-3 in 2012 and 1-2 in each of the past two seasons. A fast start could lead to the team earning homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. And a fast start would prevent any talk about a hangover stemming from last year’s NFC Championship collapse. To start fast, it will be up to the offense to come out of the gates with the pedal to the metal after spinning its tires with only 23 points in early-season losses to the Seahawks and Lions last season.
“We’ve got every guy on offense returning,” Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton said. “It’s huge. During the offseason, you can just tell everything flows better, whereas in the past maybe it takes a few weeks to get rolling. Now, we can kind of jump in Day 1 and we know each other and start rolling right away. It’s a good things. We have a good core group of guys who have been here a while and you can tell.
It’s a different story on defense. It’s an extreme example, but here’s a look at the cornerback rotation during the first 11-on-11 period. Sam Shields and Casey Hayward. Shields and Damarious Randall. Randall and Ladarius Gunter. Gunter and Demetri Goodson. And that was just the first five snaps.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has a lot to figure out. What will be the cornerback rotation beyond starters Shields, Hayward and Micah Hyde? Who will play on the defensive line due to suspensions to Letroy Guion and Datone Jones? Who plays inside linebacker when Clay Matthews goes outside? Who plays outside linebacker to provide the depth necessary for Matthews to play inside? How quickly can first-rounder Randall, second-round cornerback Quinten Rollins and fourth-round inside linebacker Jake Ryan get ready to play?
“The better that everybody gets, the better that the team is going to be,” Randall said. “The defensive back position, we have to be deep because in one play, you might be the next man up.”
While the defense searches for answers — a search that very well could extend into the regular season — it will be up to the offense to carry the load. It won’t be easy. In Green Bay’s first four games, it plays defenses that finished first (Seattle), second (Kansas City) and 10th (San Francisco) in points allowed.
“We know how close we were last year and we know how difficult it is to get to that point, and it’s about playing the right way and giving yourself as many opportunities as possible,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got to have some good fortune with injuries, but it’s all about putting yourself in position and winning the important games early sometimes that can set you for those games to be played at home because, I think we all know, and I think the league does, as well, how difficult is becoming to play at Lambeau. So, we’d love to have the championship game at Lambeau next year.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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.