Packers look ready on both sides of the ball
The Sports Xchange
“I think we’re ready.”
Those were the first four words out of Aaron Rodgers’ mouth when thrown the first question in his postgame news conference Friday night. That was the star quarterback’s succinct synopsis of the state of Green Bay’s prolific offense, albeit on a limited body of work this preseason.
Rodgers’ rousing declaration also could be applicable to the readiness of the Packers defense with only one week separating the preseason from the early start of the regular season.
As much as Rodgers & Co. clicked for the better part of almost a full first half by scoring three touchdowns in six possessions, the defensive stand taken by Green Bay’s starting unit in the 31-21 win over the visiting Oakland Raiders was significant.
“They had the one big play that they gave up, but other than that, I think we dominated the line of scrimmage,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Three-and-outs speak for themselves. I was very pleased with the first unit.”
The only blemish against the revamped No. 1 group, which has jelled and progressed since the first day of training camp almost a month ago, came on Oakland’s first possession. Safeties Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde and inside linebacker A.J. Hawk whiffed on arm tackles, enabling new Raider Maurice Jones-Drew to break free the last 35 yards on a 40-yard touchdown run.
“We don’t want to give up that touchdown like we did, but you’ve got to give Maurice Jones-Drew credit - he made a couple people miss,” said Hawk, the dean of Green Bay’s defense in his ninth season.
Linebacker Julius Peppers is new to the team. Yet, as the Packers’ oldest player at age 34 and one of the most accomplished players in the contemporary NFL, Peppers could have been speaking for his defensive teammates when asked after Friday’s game on what needs to be fine-tuned with his play.
“Everything,” Peppers responded. “You need to get better at everything. You need to wrap up better and tackle. It’s always going to be room for improvement.”
With the likelihood proven veterans such as Peppers and fellow outside linebacker Clay Matthews won’t suit up for the final exhibition game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday, Green Bay’s starting defense ended the preseason on an upswing.
The group picked itself up off the Lambeau Field turf after being left in Jones-Drew’s wake by pitching not one, but two shutouts the rest of its time together on the field Friday.
The Packers forced five straight three-and-out series by Oakland. What’s more, the Raiders mustered an aggregate zero yards of offense in those possessions, picking up two first downs at the start of the final series on back-to-back pass-interference penalties by cornerback Sam Shields.
“You’ve got to be happy with the way the defense bounced back,” Hyde said. “We want to go out there and set the tone early. We gave up that long run, and then after that we kind of just put our foot down and said no more of that. We got some momentum and we tried to move in the right direction.”
Leave it to Peppers, the elder statesman who ranks 17th in league history with 118.5 sacks, to get things right for the defense in a hurry after the initial hiccup. His unofficial first sack as a Packer, at the expense of shaky Raiders quarterback Matt Schaub (13-of-27 passing, 110 yards), came on Oakland’s first play following the Jones-Drew touchdown.
“I’m pretty comfortable (in the defense). I feel good,” Peppers said. “(I’m) trying to knock a little rust off before we get to these real games.”
Without tipping his hand, longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers provided a glimpse in the extended first-half action for the top unit on the assortment of personnel packages he can unleash on the Seattle Seahawks in the league opener Sept. 4. The multiplicity revolves around Capers’ new pass-rushing tandem.
Matthews and Peppers not only alternate between the left and right sides in the 3-4 front, but when the Packers morph into their frequently employed sub-packages in passing situations, Matthews can become a middle linebacker flanked by Peppers and Mike Neal. And, Peppers had his hand in the ground a few times Friday, familiar territory for the longtime defensive end who made a big position switch after signing with the Packers as a free agent in March.
Green Bay also can mix and match on the back end, which was in need of an overhaul after getting next to nothing in terms of production from its safeties last season.
Veteran incumbent Morgan Burnett and Hyde, a converted cornerback, look to be entrenched as the starting safeties. However, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the team’s top draft pick this year, should get plenty of time in the situational schemes when Capers slides Hyde into the slot.
“I think they all understand each other pretty well, and I think that is what is helping them out right now,” receiver James Jones, in his first season with the Raiders after spending the previous seven years with the Packers, observed about Green Bay’s new-look defense. “They have a real good feel for one another. They are going out there trusting one another and playing with each other. I think if they can stay healthy they will be a great defense.”
That is saying a lot about a unit that has fallen on hard times in recent seasons, finishing last in the league for total and pass defense in 2011 and 25th in total and rush defense and 24th in pass defense last season.
Rodgers, though, suspects the 2014 version is ready for the impending season.
“They’re playing good,” he said Friday. “We have a lot of guys that can rush the passer. We have a lot of guys that can cover. It’s just a matter of letting those guys loose. We run a lot of stuff in practice and might not have seen all of it in the preseason, which is normal. But, as they start to amp it up the next few days, I’m sure everybody is going to be excited about what those guys can do.”