Chasing Perfection: A Few Areas Where the Packers Can Improve in 2011

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We’ve all read or heard the quote. It’s a time-honored choice of words that transcends football, or any sport for that matter, and it was uttered by the most famous coach in Packers and NFL history.

“Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence.” — Vince Lombardi

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these words, or a variation of it, were said in each NFL locker room every season. The quote in itself  is nearly perfect, as there has only been one “perfect” team record-wise in the Super Bowl era.

Which brings me to my overall point. While the Packers accomplished the goal that every team sets out to at the beginning of the season, they weren’t a perfect team by any means. The 2010 Packers lost six games along the way, overcoming several deficiencies in the process. Every Packer fan from the Pacific to the Atlantic (and beyond, for our international readers) expects the Packers to repeat next season, but that might not be possible unless the Packers continue to chase perfection.

Listed below are several areas where the Packers can continue to improve for next season, and the ways in which they can do it.

 

Kick and Punt Returning

Could Improve:

The Packers averaged just 20.8 yards per return on kicks and 7.9 on punts, good for 26th and 22nd in the NFL, respectively. The group—which consisted of Jordy Nelson, Sam Shields, Pat Lee, James Starks and Tramon Williams—produced zero touchdowns and very few big plays. The Packers were also one of five teams that failed to produce a kick or punt return over 60 yards over the course of the season.

How it Could Improve:

The Packers made their first substantial move in the returning department in some time when they took Randall Cob in the second round of April’s draft. He’ll need to win the spot in camp, but all signs point to Cobb being the Packers primary return of kicks and punts. If that scenario does unfold, Cobb should be a marked improvement. He scored two touchdowns off punts at Kentucky, and averaged 24.7 yards on 44 career kick returns. I’d hesitate to call him the next Devin Hester, but Cobb can help turn around the Packers returning woes in a hurry.

 

Rushing Offense

Could Improve:

The Packers rushed for just 1,606 yards (24th in NFL) and 11 touchdowns (18th)  in 2010, and they failed to have a rusher go over 1,000 yards. Brandon Jackson led the team with 703 yards, but struggled mightily to be productive in a leading role. He produced just 43.7 yards a game and had just two runs over 20 yards in 190 carries. The Packers rushing average of 3.8 was sixth-worst in the league, and no back with over 20 carries had an average over four yards.

How it Could Improve:

Without Ryan Grant’s ankle injury in Week 1, the rushing offense likely wouldn’t have been a problem. His injury changed everything. Jackson was in over his head in a starting role, and he’s much better suited to play primarily on third downs. James Starks was stuck on the PUP list for the start of the season and didn’t truly get his feet under him until the playoffs. The Packers picked up Dmitri Nance to replace Grant, but he rarely saw consistent action.

However, all these factors make it probable that the Packers will improve running the football without changing much next season. Grant, if healthy, gives the Packers a one-cut runner with good vision, and his 2009 season (1,253 yards, 4.4 average, 11 touchdowns, 8 runs of 20+, 61 first downs) dwarfs anything the Packers got last season. He won’t get close to those numbers next season, but that has more to do with the progression and performance of Starks than Grant’s ability. Starks will get his share of carries, and his running style gives the Packers a sense of toughness on the offensive side of the football that they’ve occasionally lacked. With a full year under his belt in an NFL offense, and a healthy body for the first time in two years, Starks should be a factor. Either way, it’s hard to fathom the Packers not tacking on a few hundred yards to their 2010 total with both Grant and Starks available.

 

Catching the Football

Could Improve:

James Jones had several huge drops during the course of the season that could have wrecked several games for the Packers. According to STATS, Inc., Jones had six drops, second on the team to Donald Driver, who had seven. Jordy Nelson, despite catching nine passes in the Super Bowl, was fighting his hands throughout that contest. And overall, each receiver had instances where catchable passes were dropped.

How it Could Improve:

There is absolutely zero reason why the Packers were so sloppy catching the football in 2010. No team has the collection of talent at both receiver and tight end that Green Bay possesses. But for that same reason, one could expect this group to rebound in 2011.

Jones, the receiver guilty of the most frustrating drops, might also be playing elsewhere next season. But like the case is for Jones, the problem is all mental for the Packers receivers and it’s possible that new receivers coach Edgar Bennett can turn around whatever was ailing the group last season. Despite being a former running back, he’s an accountable assistant coach who could revert the receivers back to their fundamentals.

But changes aside, with Greg Jennings, Driver,  Nelson and Jermichael Finley as your top four receivers, the Packers should have no excuses in 2011 for catchable passes hitting the turf.

 

Kick and Punt Coverage

Could Improve:

Despite not having awful numbers, the Packers kick and punt coverage teams were on their heels for the majority of the season. Their 21.8 yards per kick put them in the top 15 in the NFL, but their 11.0 yards per punt was eighth worst.

Two big returns for touchdowns—at Chicago in Week 3 and at Atlanta during the NFC Divisional round—were backbreakers at the time, and long returns against both New England (71 yards from 313-pound Dan Connolly) and Atlanta in Week 12 (Eric Weems 40 yards plus 15-yard face mask) turned the tide in each of those losses.

How it Could Improve:

Special teams coach Shawn Slocum takes most of the blame, and rightfully so. It’s his job to prepare his unit every week no matter which street free agents you have to work with, as both Dom Capers and Joe Philbin proved last season. But in all fairness to Slocum, you can’t discount how much the Packers injuries decimated their coverage units.

The players who usually should be covering kicks were in starters roles because of all the injuries. That kind of disarray in the special teams can be hard to overcome, especially if several of the players out were key contributors on that unit. As long as the Packers stay healthy in 2011, they should be better in this area.

 

Pass Protection

Could Improve:

Despite the improvements from 2009 (the Packers had nowhere to go but up), quarterback Aaron Rodgers still got hit too many times. Green Bay gave up the 11st most sacks in the NFL last season (38), accounting for 231 yards of lost offense. And while improvisation in the pocket is one of Rodgers’ strong points, he was called upon too many times to extend broken plays because of poor pass protection.

Other factors went into that—namely the lack of a running game—but there should be no more excuses at this point. It wasn’t a huge problem last season, but certainly something the Packers can hope will improve for 2011.

How it Can Improve

It’s not unreasonable to expect more improvements from the Packers pass protection in 2011. The team has drafted tackles in the first round in back-to-back years, and they have Pro Bowl-caliber players in Chad Clifton and Josh Sitton along the offensive line. Scott Wells is also a smart center who excels in making pre-snap reads.

And even if an injury happens to a spot on the line, the Packers now have the depth to cover it. Derek Sherrod, Bryan Bulaga, Clifton and T.J. Lang can all play tackle, and both Lang and Bulaga have the versatility to start inside. Lang may even start at left guard if Daryn Colledge isn’t retained.

But most know why improving the pass protection is so important. With concussion testing improved, and Rodgers already two deep in that area, protecting the franchise becomes even more imperative. The Packers have the talent on the offensive line and at quarterback to annually have less than 30 sacks allowed. 2011 would be a good time to start that trend.


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Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.

You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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  • Tarynfor 12

    Every season a team will have areas to improve on.Wrs will drop passes,RBs won’t gain 100yds,QBs will be INTed,special teams won’t be special etc.

    Being able to improve each whether through camps or personel(player or coach)change won’t be as beneficial to the team as a whole unless the very principle of this post is again recognized with the same fervor which was instilled last year.

    No matter how good or great one is expected or proves to be,unless each player,no matter his position or starting level must accept unto himself that his best is still to come and can answer the call even if for a short time.

    This, as it did, proves one aspect can rely on another to overcome any failing of it’s parts.

    Too many teams replace good players for perceived better players in FA or the draft.But,unless the mental side of each is co-ordinated to what was engraved in the “Rings”via Woodson,you merely replace one unusable cog for another.

    I would love improvement in all areas like most but not at the expense of the chemistry/philosophy of “next man up” that even Vince himself would/might shake his head in awe of.

    • http://www.packernation.org PackerNation

      I’ve always liked that quote by Lombardi about chasing perfection.

      The Packer kickoff return game, and the coverage unit, will both benefit immensely from the new rules. Simply stated, we’ll see fewer kickoff returns and many more touchbacks, and that benefits a team like the Packers who have a strong legged kicker and a weak return unit.

      The run game is as good as the Packers want it to be, ironically. The offense is built to pass the ball, and they’re going to pass it a lot more often than they’re going to run it. I think they’d like more long runs against teams preparing for the pass, but we especially want RBs who are adept at blitz pickup and catching the ball out of the backfield. Remember, every 4 yard run is a twelve yard pass we didn’t throw..

      I expect that one of the biggest areas of improvement for the Packers this year will be on defense. Yes, we led the NFC last year with only 240 points scored on us, but I could easily see the Packer defense surrending less than 200 points this year….that’d be a 20% improvement and I don’t see any other area where we could match that. Add all the guys coming off IR plus another year of experience for guys like Shields and Zombo and Wilson and I think this season’s Packer defense will be one of the best in team history.

  • Mojo

    How about the reliability of Mason Crosby? He could improve on both field-goal accuracy and kick-off distance, although as mentioned above, it shouldn’t matter as much with kickoffs starting five yards further upfield.

    Zach mentions both kick return and coverage units as areas in need of improvement combined with my concerns about Crosby leave me feeling just about anything with special teams could use improving. Wonder if ST’s struggles would lead to a mid-season firing of Slocum, who may have been saved from that fate by the Pack winning the SB.

    What’s especially frustrating about the special teams is the Pack seem to draft and retain players who have, what they believe to be, the ideal body types for this unit. As Lombardi said; “What the Hell is going on out here.”

  • FireMMNow

    Slocum just has to improve the units and with Cobb he atleast has a return man. He will have by far the deepest roster of young talent to work with for his different units. Put up or shut up. I just do not expect much. But all that matters really is that tramon is not returning punts anymore. Now I will not have to turn my head to the side every time the PR gets tackled.

    Having a spot open at LG bothers me. Not because we do not have the talent to fill the hole, but because Campen has proven over and over again that he cannot make a decision on a starting lineup. Leave Sherrod and Bulaga out of the equation please. Clifton will miss time this season. I do not want to have to shuffle the entire line the week before we play any of the D-lines in our division. The packers have atleast three guys to fill the position and Lang should be an absolute perfect fit.

  • Curley2808

    We should suffer an “embarrassment of riches” and might actually be the most “improved” team from last year! The hard part will be keeping helmet sizes from increasing due to the accolades that will be heaped upon the team. That…will be the snake in the grass coaches have to watch for. As a fan, I’ve already purchased a new hat two sizes bigger for the upcoming season.

    • FireMMNow

      this team was better than their regular season record indicated, but it should not be forgotten that the packers were a terrible matt dodge punt away from missing the playoffs completely.