While the Brett Favre saga plays out in a different NFC North city, the Packers believe they’ve found their quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. However, even with Dom Capers in town to fix a defense which allowed 42 touchdowns last year, they’ll struggle to pass Minnesota and Chicago, the two teams that finished the season ahead of them.
OFFENSE (#8 total yardage, #17 rushing, #8 passing, #5 scoring):
Green Bay only managed a 6-10 record in 2008, but moving on from the Favre Era appears to have little to do with that. Few could complain about Aaron Rodgers’ performance in his first season as the Packers’ starter: the fifth-year Cal grad threw for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions, compiling an impressive 93.8 passer rating.
Second-year players Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm are waging a pitched battle for the backup job; Flynn drafted five rounds later than Brohm, who has the big arm and the better pedigree won the job last season, and is on track to do the same in 2009.
Rodgers will have the luxury of handing off to Ryan Grant, one of just four running backs in Green Bay’s long and storied history to surpass 1,200 yards in a season. Grant was a workhorse last season, totaling 312 carries and adding 18 catches, leaving backups Brandon Jackson, DeShawn Wynn, and Kregg Lumpkin to combine for just 54 carries. Rookie Tyrell Sutton could also be a factor.
Greg Jennings and Donald Driver give the Packers one of the better wideout tandems in the league. Both hit the 1,000-yard mark last year, with Jennings’ 80 catches, 1,292 yards, and 9 receiving touchdowns all leading the team. James Jones, trying to rebound from an injury-plagued season after a breakout rookie year in 2007, appears ready to reclaim the No. 3 slot from Jordy Nelson. Tight end Donald Lee (39 catches 303 yards, 5 TDs) also plays a significant role in the offense, with 2008 third-round pick Jermichael Finley waiting in the wings.
The left side of the line is set with tackle Chad Clifton and guard Daryn Colledge, but on the right side, Breno Giacomini is pushing Allen Barbre for the chance to replace Mark Tauscher, who remains unsigned after an ACL injury ended his 2008 season. Scott Wells is still listed atop the depth chart at center, but there’s a chance Jason Spitz could shift over from right guard, with second-year player Josh Sitton moving into the starting lineup.
DEFENSE (#20 total yardage, #26 rushing, #12 passing, #22 scoring):
The Packers are switching to a 3-4 set under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who replaced current Bills DL coach Bob Sanders in that position. That could mean playing time at end for Green Bay’s first-round selection, Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji. After signing late, the No. 9 overall pick is listed behind starter Ryan Pickett, but don’t expect that to last. One way or another, Raji needs to be on the field. Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly are the current starters at end, but the Packers could be hurting for depth; Justin Harrell, expected to be part of the rotation, may have to retire due to a back injury.
One of last year’s starting defensive ends, Aaron Kampman (who led the team with 9.5 sacks), is making the transition to outside linebacker. Veteran middle linebacker Nick Barnett is slowly making his way back from a torn ACL, and probably won’t play against Buffalo, leaving Brandon Chillar to line up alongside A.J. Hawk on the inside. Likewise, the team’s other first-rounder, USC’s Clay Matthews, will miss Saturday’s fame, with Jeremy Thompson taking his place.
The secondary should be one of the best in the league; cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris and free safety Nick Collins all made it to the Pro Bowl following last season. (Harris was an injury replacement for Woodson.) Atari Bigby provides a veteran presence at strong safety.
Mason Crosby made 27 of 34 field goal attempts last year, including an impressive 8-for-12 from 40 yards and out, and was perfect on 46 extra-point attempts. Jeremy Kapinos, one of very few left-footed punters in the league, and former Redskin Durant Brooks are vying for the honor of trying to kick in the cold winter winds of Wisconsin.
Will Blackmon is an average kick returner, but dangerous on punts; his 11.1-yard average in 2008 includes two touchdowns. The coverage teams are decent, allowing 23.4 yards per kick return and just 7.5 on punts.
QB After two games, Trent Edwards has yet to throw an incompletion. Can’t get much better than that ... although actually going downfield more than once or twice a game would be nice. Some of that’s on Edwards, some on the line. But if the Bills want to make full use of their talented set of starting wideouts, Edwards will have to eventually reconcile himself to taking the occasional hit.
Let’s hope those hits are infrequent at best. While Ryan Fitzpatrick did look better than he has in practice, if it’s all the same, I think I’ll hold off on anointing him the next Frank Reich until I see a little more work against the other team’s starters.
RB: Bruce Hall showed a little better than the first game, I thought, but the No. 4 back (third while Marshawn Lynch sits out his suspension) is still Xavier Omon’s to lose. Unless they’re considering actually letting Cory McIntyre carry the ball a few times, as they did at the end of last Saturday’s game? Intriguing development, although I’m not going to throw around superlatives about the inability of the Bears practice squad to stop the burly fullback.
WR: Steve Johnson is back at practice, so we should see him work his way into the lineup. Watch for him on the kick-coverage teams, too if he can handle one of the gunner positions, Justin Jenkins’ grip on a roster spot gets a little more tenuous. Of course, leaving James Hardy on the PUP list does create some wiggle room for the players fighting for those last couple of jobs.
TE: Shawn Nelson hopefully gave fans a preview of coming attractions with his leaping touchdown catch against Chicago; haven’t seen a Bills TE make an athletic play like that in a long time. The team will probably keep three at the position, with the draft choices having a natural advantage, but don’t count out Jonathan Stupar just yet.
OL: After opening against two 4-3 defenses, the Bills get their first look at a 3-4 set. Hopefully, Langston Walker handles the challenge better than last week. If not, guess it might be time to permanently park a TE off his left shoulder, because Edwards won’t last until October otherwise. Didn’t see much in the way of run blocking, either, against a Bears team missing Pro Bowl DT Tommie Harris.
DL: Coming off strong performances against the Bears, Chris Ellis and Copeland Bryan get one more chance to showcase their skills before Aaron Maybin begins cutting into their reps in practice on Monday. At least one of them is probably on the bubble, and I’m not entirely convinced John McCargo has safely made the team, either.
LB: Has anyone seen Pat Thomas lately? Me neither. As the days go by and the only veteran backup on the roster doesn’t practice, I continue to wonder if he’ll be this year’s Will James, released to make room for the young guys. Ashlee Palmer is also still sidelined shame, because his potential intrigued me. Of course, with barely any film available on him, the Bills might be able to sneak him through to the practice squad while his ankle heals.
Oh, yeah ... I should probably mention the guys who will play against Green Bay. Looking for continued improvement out of the Nic Harris/Marcus Buggs/Alvin Bowen second unit, because I could honestly see those three all making the 53-man roster.
DB: With Drayton Florence likely on the shelf until the regular season, Reggie Corner should be able to lock down the nickel spot. Did Ellis Lankster’s two-INT night against the Bears’ scrubs push him ahead of Ashton Youboty? The veteran probably gets the benefit of the doubt, but how much longer can the team put up with his injury history? At safety, we finally get to see Jairus Byrd, No. 31 on your roster. Let’s hope he lives up to the expectations the Bills had when they spent a second-round pick on him.
Bills depth chart | 2008 regular-season stats
Packers depth chart | 2008 regular-season stats
Lori Chase, a staff columnist for Two Bills Drive, can be contacted at lchase (at) twobillsdrive (dot) com.
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