Postcard from camp: Packers
Despite their age, Charles Woodson and Donald Driver still have important roles
The Packers will use a committee in the backfield, led primarily by James Starks
The team's success depends on the pass defense improving from last season
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Dennis Dillon had to say about Packers camp in Green Bay, Wisc., which he visited on July 26. Read all of our postcards here.
In Titletown, USA, aka Green Bay, Wisc., where the first part of training camp catered to the early bird. Coach Mike McCarthy scheduled his first half-dozen practices for 8:15 a.m. at Ray Nitschke Field, a short ride on kids' bicycles for the players (it's a tradition) from the locker room at Lambeau Field. Practice moved to 7 p.m. on Thursday, and there also will be 3:30 p.m. and 11 a.m. sessions as McCarthy tries to keep his players (and the media) on their toes. The Packers have been training camp homebodies since 1958, one year before Vince Lombardi arrived. They practice at their facility and players are housed at St. Norbert College in nearby DePere.
1. Charles in charge. Following in the path of Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson, two Hall of Fame cornerbacks who switched to safety in the twilight of their careers, Charles Woodson is lining up as a safety in Green Bay's base 3-4 defense. When the Packers switch to their nickel and dime packages, which they use a lot, Woodson moves in to cover the slot receiver, just like he usually has done.
This is not entirely new for the 15-year veteran, who was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. In recent seasons, the Packers have given Woodson a handful of plays at safety during a game. Now, he'll get a bigger dose. The thinking is that Woodson, a versatile playmaker, can be even more involved if he's closer to the ball. It also could extend the 35-year-old's career.
"Well, that's what some people say, but I don't know of too many examples other than Rod and Ronnie," Woodson said. "Not all corners can switch and make the move to safety. Once you get up there in age, they start bringing new guys in at your position and you kind of get yourself weeded out."
Having some younger legs at the cornerback position should help a defense that allowed 4,796 passing yards (an average of nearly 300 per game) last season, but just in case you're wondering, the Packers have no plans to put Woodson out to pasture.
2. The running game is a work in progress. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL's most valuable player last season, and his elite cast of receivers form one of the league's most potent passing arsenals. But the Packers cannot live on the pass alone. So who's going to step up and run the ball effectively?
The leader in the clubhouse is third-year back James Starks, who displayed some flashes during the Packers' Super Bowl run two seasons ago but still is a developing player who has been hampered by various injuries (a hamstring during the 2010 regular season and a knee and ankle last year). Starks has size (6-foot-2, 218), speed and strength, and he's a capable receiver. He just needs to stay healthy. He spent a lot of the offseason riding bikes, both stationary and two-wheelers, to build up his endurance and strengthen his legs.
"His availability is probably his biggest challenge," McCarthy said.
Two second-year backs, Alex Green and Brandon Saine, are pushing Starks for work. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Packers go with a running-back-by-committee approach this season.
3. Driver driven. The Packers signed wide receiver Donald Driver to a new restructured contract that should allow him to finish out his career in Green Bay not because they liked the way he performed the paso doble en route to winning last season's Dancing with the Stars contest. They did so because they still think, at 37, he is a viable piece in their passing game.
"Donald is so consistent," McCarthy said. "That's the one thing you always admire about Donald. The thing that's overlooked is his toughness. Just when you don't hear from him for a little while, he goes out and makes two or three big plays. He's the all-time pro."
Driver made a couple of athletic catches during Tuesday's practice, including an acrobatic reception in the end zone to end a two-minute period.
D.J. Smith, linebacker. The Packers have high expectations for Smith, a second-year linebacker who was drafted in the sixth round out of Appalachian State last year. Primarily a special teams player for most of the season, Smith made his first career start in a Dec. 4 road game against the Giants, when linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop were inactive with calf injuries. He made nine tackles (eight solo) and pressured Eli Manning into a throw that linebacker Clay Matthews intercepted. Starting again a week later against the Raiders, Smith had 12 tackles (eight solo) and jumped up to pick off a pass by Carson Palmer. Smith, who received game balls after both contests, made a big impression on Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who compares him to former Saints premier linebacker Sam Mills, when Mills was a young pro.
Jeff Saturday, center. When long-time Packer Scott Wells, a starter since 2005, went on the free-agent market, eventually signing with St. Louis, Green Bay moved quickly to get a player to fill the vacancy in the middle of its offensive line. The Packers found a great one in Saturday, who, you may remember, worked hand-in-hand with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis for the past 13 years. Saturday, 37, is a five-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the more durable linemen in the league (he played in 197 games with Indy and started 188). He should be a good leader on the field and in the locker room, as well as a veteran linchpin for a starting line that has no other player with more than four years of experience.
The Packers won't go 15-1 again. I'll go out on a limb and say that right now. But they have a great chance to win 12 games and repeat as champs in a getting-tougher-by-the-year NFC North -- if the defense is better. Although the Pack led the league in interceptions last season, the lack of a consistent pass rush and an oft-vulnerable pass defense was exposed by the Giants in an NFC divisional-round win over the Packers. Green Bay's schedule, which features five primetime games, has some quirks. Between Sept. 30 and Dec. 2, the Packers have only two home games. They play a string of three straight road games (at Indy, Houston, St. Louis) in October, and then face back-to-back challenges at the Giants and at the Lions after their Nov. 11 bye.
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