Commentary: Cheers and jeers

The lasting impression from when the Green Bay Packers last faced the Buffalo Bills boiled down to two numbers. Fourteen and eight. The Packers allowed just 14 sacks last season, a team record. Packers quarterbacks were sacked eight times by Buffalo during the Family Night scrimmage.

The Packers and Bills squared off two weeks ago, and will do so again Saturday evening in Buffalo. The game marks the midpoint of the preseason. With apologies to Roger Ebert, here is a thumbs-up and thumbs-down look at what we've seen.

Thumbs up

— Rookie safety Nick Collins was drafted to be a starter, just not necessarily this season. Collins, however, has turned doubters into believers. A player with academic troubles dotting his collegiate history, Collins seemingly has had no trouble digesting the Packers' defensive system. Collins is big and fast and, while there no doubt will be some growing pains, he has all the makings of, at worst, being a solid starter for years to come.

— Wide receiver Donald Driver seems to defy age. In the 2003 opener against Minnesota, Driver fell on his head, suffering a neck injury. When he was hauled off the field on a stretcher, it appeared his career could be over.

It wasn't over, of course, but Driver's 52 catches for 621 yards and two touchdowns were a far cry from the 70 catches for 1,064 yards and nine touchdowns from the year before.

Driver came back strong last season, however, setting or matching career highs with 84 catches for 1,208 yards and nine scores. He's not quite as impressive as Javon Walker during camp, but at the ripe old age of 30, the hard-working, always-smiling Driver shows no signs of slowing down.

— Of all the Packers' draft picks, Will Whitticker was the most intriguing. Judging by his resume — a huge man with a penchant for pancake blocks at Michigan State — Whitticker somehow fell through the cracks again and again until the Packers picked him with the 10th-from-the-last pick in the entire draft. Whitticker will start Saturday against Buffalo. If he passes that test, he almost certainly will be the opening day starter. The test is a big one, however: Buffalo's mammoth nose tackle, Sam Adams, was the best player on the field during the scrimmage.

— Perhaps the most-mocked draft choice was Michael Hawkins. Here's a guy who couldn't even start in the Arena Football League, yet the Packers wasted a fifth-round pick on him?

That's why Thompson is the general manager and us writers usually don't know what we're talking about. Hawkins — please call me Mike, not Michael — is just as fast as we were led to believe. Most important, though, is Hawkins seems to have a burning desire to be the best player he can be.

Thumbs down

— The offensive line, for all the positive press about Whitticker, has been far worse than expected. Along with the eight sacks allowed against Buffalo in the scrimmage, the Packers averaged 2.9 yards per rush against San Diego.

While the Packers clearly hope Whitticker will start at right guard, left guard remains as muddled today as it did when camp kicked off three weeks ago. Neither Grey Ruegamer nor free-agent Adrian Klemm has done anything to show he's ready to grab the bull by the horns. Last week, the Packers went to Plan C, moving backup center Scott Wells to left guard.

The Packers would like Klemm to win the job, since his athleticism is reminiscent of the man he's trying to replace, Mike Wahle. Oh yeah, there's that $800,000 signing bonus.

To be sure, the Packers have enough time to build a solid line, though it's imperative the starting five emerges quickly so they can build some cohesion in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 11 opener. Saturday's game is vital, if for no other reason than to give Favre confidence the unit can handle the blitz and give Ahman Green and Co. reason to think the running game will remain among the league's elite.

— During limited playing time last season, quarterback Craig Nall flashed the kind of potential to make some observers believe he had the makings of being the possible replacement for Favre.

Thompson must have thought otherwise, because the Packers look Aaron Rodgers in the first round of April's draft. Thompson's judgment looks sound, since Nall, as well as incumbent third-stringer J.T. O'Sullivan, has been a major disappointment in camp.

Rodgers, unless he falls on his face during the final three preseason games, will start the season as Favre's primary backup. Rodgers has been impressive to be sure, but had Nall picked up where he left off after dissecting the Bears in the regular-season finale in January, he would have held onto the No. 2 job.

— Remember that passion for the game Hawkins shows? It's too bad Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas lack that. Carroll, last year's first-round pick, opened training camp behind Thomas, last year's third-round pick, on the depth chart. The demotion didn't seem to bother Carroll too much. If the Packers intended to light a fire under him, it's not working.

Thomas, on the other hand, can't stay on the field. There's a funny saying that goes like this: You can't make the club in the tub. While Thomas isn't going to be cut, he's spent entirely too much time in the hot tub rehabbing and not nearly enough time on the practice field. This is the second year in a row Thomas has spent most of training camp laid up with not-so-major injuries.

In their own ways, Carroll and Thomas share one bad thing in common. They have the skills to be good players but they lack that certain something special to ever match expectations.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to Packerreport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com


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