10 keys to the season

Packers need to regain homefield advantage, get more out of Harrell, among other things

The Green Bay Packers kick off their season Sunday and after four preseason games and training camp, do we really know what the Packers will do this season?

We all have our opinions, and I see the Packers forging a 7-9 record, mainly because I don't see where this team improved an offense, which was mediocre last year.

As the season approaches, here are the 10 keys to the Packers proving me wrong and having a season which will include playing in January.

10. Avoid a slow start. The last three years the Packers opened 1-4, and the last two seasons they missed the playoffs. For the Packers to make the playoffs in 2007, there is no way a 1-4 start can happen. Even though the NFC is weak, the Packers can't afford to play catch-up in the final 11 games. A quick start would build momentum and get this young team believing. Another sluggish start and who knows what will become of this team?

9. Defend homefield. The Packers were dominant at home during Brett Favre's MVP seasons, but now visitors to Lambeau Field make themselves a little too comfortable. Green Bay has not won six home games since 2002, when the Packers were 8-0, 12-4 overall. Any playoff team has a homefield advantage, but the Packers hardly have one now. That has to change.

8. Justin Harrell. I believe the first-round pick for an 8-8 team has to become a starter and a contributor for the team to make a jump. However, Harrell looks like a complementary player. He plays on a deep defensive line and picking him just seems strange when the Packers could've went in other directions (see safety Reggie Nelson, wide receiver Robert Meachem). It's doubtful this rookie will make an impact, and that's not what a team needs from the 16th pick in the draft.

7. Mason Crosby. A rookie kicker never is a sure thing (see Brett Conway). Also, in the NFL there are so many games decided by 3 points or less, you wonder if this kid can handle real pressure.

6. Brett Favre. People raved about Favre last season, but he tied a career-low with 18 TD passes, his lowest total since 1992, and had 18 INTs, which was 11 fewer than 2005. His passer rating was a mortal 72.7. Not great, not even good. Just so-so. He needs to be better this season. Throw fewer INTs and become better in the red zone, a place the Packers were terrible in 2006.

5. Health. It's always important, but with a team which lacks experienced depth, the Packers need as few players on crutches as possible. It seems weird to say this, but the one spot the Packers have depth is quarterback, where Aaron Rodgers had a good preseason. On the other side of the spectrum, cornerback has no proven depth, so health is huge.

4. James Jones. He appears to be the Packers' most ready draft pick … if he can read defenses. His preseason assured the Packers he can play physically now, but he must be able to read defenses on the run, and Sunday will be a test with a blitz-happy Eagles defense. If Jones comes around, he gives Favre three reliable weapons at WR, joining Donald Driver and possibly Greg Jennings, who has been nursing a sore hamstring.

3. Return game. With the Packers' offense a question right now, the shorter the field the offense has to travel, the better. This means the return game has to become something it hasn't been in quite a while – a threat. Even if the offense can't score after a big return, field position is key, and pinning a team deep in its own territory can sometimes result in big defensive plays.

2. Safeties. Nick Collins is in his third year and Atari Bigby his second. Both are good athletes, but this twosome will not make Packers fans think of the LeRoy Butler-Eugene Robinson combo from years ago. Nonetheless, if this duo can just play steady and limit big plays, it'll be doing the job. The last thing the last line of defense needs to be doing is chasing receivers downfield. Let's not see that.

1. The running game. The Packers need to set up their passing game with the running game, not the other way around. This is because Favre, like it or not, is a game manager now. However, Favre may be pressed into trying to make tough plays, because rookies Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn, Vernand Morency and Ryan Grant don't exactly comprise a top 10 running back group. The Packers' running game must become the leader on offense, not a support unit, but right now can we say it will be?

Doug Ritchay is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at dritchay@sbcglobal.net

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