Postcards from camp: Packers
The Packers are confident a 7-1 end to last season wasn't a fluke
The strength of Dom Capers' defense lies in run-stopping line
Team not counting on Al Harris to be in opening-day lineup
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about the Packers camp in Green Bay. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
On the sideline of a Packers training camp practice is an interesting place to be when all heck breaks loose on the Brett Favre front, but per chance that's where I was Tuesday morning when the "R'' word resurfaced again in connection with the NFL's most well-known quitter. And to think I had just left Vikings camp in Mankato hours earlier, never suspecting a thing. Maybe I should have flopped those two stops on my little travel itinerary.
1. I know this is getting to be a recurring theme of my camp tour, but the Packers, like the Ravens and Vikings before them, aren't afraid to be talking Super Bowl in August. And to think I haven't even visited Cincinnati's camp, where those two words flow from the mouths of receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens all day long.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has even done his part to keep the ball rolling in terms of Super Bowl talk, calling his team "the best group of men I've stood in front of in my time here.'' Last year's 7-1 record in the second half of the season was the NFL's best over that span, and there's a confidence level within the locker room that there's more streaks like that to come.
"Every time we go to a team meeting room, they're talking up that trophy,'' Packers third-year tight end Jermichael Finley told me, meaning his fellow players. "There are a lot of expectations in this organization, so we've got to come through. But the sky's the limit right now for us. Like Mike said, this is the best team he's had since he got here. And I'm with him on that. We've got all the pieces we need right now. I know our receiving corps is deadly. Every time I talk about our receiving corps, it gives me the chills, man.''
I don't get the chills, but I do like the Packers chances in the NFC. At the moment, they're my favorite to win the conference, just as they were coming out of last year's preseason. They're not bullet-proof by any stretch. There are some holes in Green Bay's roster. But I see a team still on the ascent, and apparently the Packers do too.
2. I haven't done an exhaustive research project, but historically, the statistical standing of a Dom Capers-coordinated defense has slipped in year two of his tenure. That's somewhat surprising because you'd figure a second season in his trademark 3-4 defense would be more comfortable and familiar for everyone involved, and thus more successful. Especially when a team has made the transition from a 4-3 alignment, as the Packers did last season.
But the trend may hold again this year, if only because the Packers defense, after a rough first half of 2009, finished so high in the defensive rankings last year: No. 2 in overall defense and No. 1 against the run, after being 20th and 26th in those categories in 2008. There may be nowhere to go but down. Capers' defense led the NFL with 40 takeaways and 30 interceptions, scoring a league-high 141 points off takeaways (tied with the Super Bowl champion Saints), and cornerback Charles Woodson was named the league's defensive player of the year.
Maybe the stats aren't as glowing this year, but the Packers defense will still be formidable. The loss of valuable lane-clogging defensive lineman Johnny Jolly to an indefinite league suspension is significant. But Green Bay is shifting the versatile Ryan Pickett from tackle to end, and I love the run-stuffing potential of a three-man front consisting of Pickett, happy with his new contract and slimmed down to about 320 from last year's 340 pounds, emerging second-year nose tackle B.J. Raji (337) and the underrated Cullen Jenkins (305). That's not going to be an easy wall to run against, and that's where the strength of Green Bay's defense will lie.
3. Aaron Rodgers tells anyone who will listen that Packers third-year tight end Jermichael Finley has barely scratched the surface of what he can accomplish in the Green Bay passing game. Despite missing three games last season due to a midseason knee injury, Finley's second NFL season was impressive: 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns, and then a monster game in the playoffs at Arizona (six catches for 159 yards, the second-most yards ever by a tight end in the postseason, only seven fewer than Kellen Winslow's epic game at Miami in January 1982).
But in a display of candor on Tuesday in the Packers' locker room, Finley told me there was a lot more he could have done last season. "It's about taking advantage of every play,'' he said. "Last year I took some plays off every once in a while. People on the outside probably couldn't tell, but for myself, I know I took some plays off that I could have taken advantage of. It's being young. But I've matured a lot over these months we've been off.''
I like the honesty. Look for Finley to take another sizable step in his development as one of the game's impact tight ends.
The Packers don't really do free agency, so the new face in this case belongs to first-round pick Bryan Bulaga, the Iowa offensive tackle who somewhat surprisingly was still on the board when Green Bay's No. 23 pick came around. Bulaga might have slid out of the top 10, but he landed in a very comfortable place, because the Packers can afford to ease him into high-profile left tackle slot over time rather than from day one.
Last year at this time Green Bay thought it had enough manpower at tackle to get the job done, but of course it didn't. Rodgers almost got killed in the season's first half, but things got markedly better up front when left tackle Chad Clifton returned to the lineup after an early season ankle injury and the Packers re-signed veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher. Bulaga's job this season is to fill the swing-tackle role backing up both of those 11-year vets, while learning his craft well enough to eventually replace Clifton.
That's a relatively low-pressure role that should afford him time to toughen up his body a bit and learn NFL blocking techniques, rather than see him thrown into the fire from the very start like higher drafted left offensive tackles such as Trent Williams in Washington and Russell Okung in Seattle.
With veteran safety Atari Bigby still on the team's physically unable to perform list and having visited a North Carolina ankle specialist on Tuesday, rookie third-round safety Morgan Burnett has benefited greatly from the extra practice reps and is quickly emerging as a potential starting replacement for Bigby. The Packers have thrown everything at him, and so far he hasn't flinched.
McCarthy told me Burnett has been "clearly the most impressive rookie so far in the camp'' and that he's on track to line up against Cleveland in the team's preseason opener if he puts together another impressive week of practice. Burnett also had the advantage of working with the first-team defense in the team's offseason workouts after being drafted out of Georgia Tech, while Bigby didn't attend Green Bay's program at all because he was seeking a long-term contract and did not sign his one-year tender until last week.
Bigby's problem left ankle caused him to fail the Packers' physical at the start of camp, and it's an issue that he has battled on again and off again since the 2008 preseason. Bigby better not linger long on the sidelines, because the Packers are high on Burnett's potential and his starting candidacy is a train that leaves the station a little more each passing day.
In this category I'd have to go with the priceless look on Packers general manager Ted Thompson's face Tuesday afternoon when I asked him if any part of him believed Brett Favre was really retiring this time? Thompson declined comment for the record, but he really didn't have to say anything to let me know how he felt about that one.
1. My sense is the Packers are still holding out hope that they'll have veteran cornerback Al Harris back on the field at the start of the season, but they're definitively not counting on him. Harris continues to rehab from the season-ending ACL/MCL knee injury he suffered in Week 11 last year, and while Harris has scoffed at the idea he may have to start the regular season on the PUP list and miss the first six weeks, I don't think Green Bay is ruling any scenario out until it sees if he can cut and shadow a receiver. McCarthy said Harris is not ready yet, but added "he's getting close.'' Tramon Williams would again start opposite Woodson until Harris returns.
2. The Packers are loaded with quality inside linebackers, but they look a little thin at outside linebacker, especially with projected left side starter Brad Jones suffering an early camp back injury. Clay Matthews is a star in the making on the right side, but the Packers this week moved inside linebacker Brandon Chillar to the left outside slot in practice and may continue to work him there. Chillar is a little light for the slot at 237, but not by much, and Green Bay believes he has the athleticism and pass-rushing skills to handle the assignment as part of a four-man outside linebacker rotation.
3. To repeat myself from earlier this offseason, I think Packers quarterback Rodgers is in for another monster season. McCarthy agrees. "He's just so consistent,'' McCarthy said. "He's a talented and a tough guy, and he's always on an even keel. I think it's his time. We've got to keep him healthy, but this is his time.''
4. Fourth-year Packers defensive end Justin Harrell has been a first-round disappointment of major proportions in his first three seasons, largely because he can't stay healthy. But the Packers have been cautiously optimistic about Harrell's showing so far in camp, even though he has struggled with heat-related issues early on. The reality is, anything they get out of the former Tennessee Vol this year is gravy.
5. It has come to this in the internet age in which we live: Inside the Packers team auditorium inside Lambeau Field, where Green Bay holds most of its major press conferences, painted on the wall are the words "Notice: Room conversations may be carried live over the internet.''
In other words, be careful what you say. Anybody, even your mother, could catch you streaming live.