GREEN BAY – The Milwaukee Brewers did their part.
No, they didn’t put themselves in position to win the National League Central, not after being swept at Cincinnati last weekend, but they did fill the void between the NFL draft and the start of training camp.
Now, it’s all eyes on the Packers as head coach Mike McCarthy opens his seventh training camp in Green Bay. Here are five key areas to focus on Thursday when the Packers take the field:
** B.J. Raji and the defensive line
As Fritz Shurmur, the Packers’ former defensive coordinator, used to say, “If you don’t have a defensive line, you don’t have a defense.”
Indeed, Packers’ fans understand what Shurmur meant more than ever after watching last season’s debacle unfold.
The Packers’ 3-4 defense was ineffective because the big guys up front played small against the run and invisible against the pass.
Raji, the lynchpin, was neutralized through overuse. He played way too many downs (80 percent of the defensive snaps) to be a playmaker. He was too busy trying to survive to think about dominating.
Now, he and the rest of the defensive front need to mesh into a strong, reliable unit if the Packers expect to make a deep run in the postseason.
Raji’s stamina is critical. He had better arrive in top shape Thursday. The rest of unit needs to show up hungry, and with a sense of urgency. Those traits will be easy to spy, or conspicuous by their absence.
I suspect fans’ patience with a sloppy, underperforming line is short. My guess is defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ patience is even shorter.
** The one-on-one pass rush drills
The drill itself is designed to give the pass rusher an edge.
If the Packers’ defenders can’t win when they are single-blocked (trying to create single blocks – and subsequent mismatches – is at the core of most NFL defensive schemes) what chance do they have?
The Packers need linebackers Desmond Bishop, Nick Perry and at least one other would-be pass rusher to be consistently dominant in the drills.
** Jermichael Finley’s time is at hand
So much of what McCarthy and his offense love to do involves the tight ends. Naturally, much of the offense’s success – and the tight ends’ role – revolves around the position’s best player.
Finley needs to relax, focus and lead by example.
Potential is a wonderful thing. Unrealized potential gets old real fast. Barring unforeseen misfortune, Finley is too talented and smart not to have the production match the hype.
** Rookie Casey Hayward and the defensive backs
The passing drills are always revealing, especially when college safeties such as Hayward line up in the slot against veteran receivers. It doesn’t take long to see Hayward’s (or any other young player’s) skill set.
Back when passing offenses weren’t so evolved, safeties weren’t asked to cover receivers in the slot. Now it is routine. Of all the reasons to miss Nick Collins – and there are many – one of the greatest is his ability to cover slot receivers. It allowed Capers and Co. a great deal of latitude to disguise coverage.
If Hayward proves to be more than adequate in pass coverage, and third-year pro Morgan Burnett improves in this area, Capers’ job gets easier and the Packers’ defense gets better.
** The team’s overall level of efficiency, urgency
Training camp’s great intrigue is talent evaluation. Which of the young players can actually play? That is always of primary consideration, and it is true with the Packers’ “all-defense” rookie class.
That said, the Packers are a veteran team with high expectations, and reaching the goal is largely incumbent upon, well, the incumbents.
To that end, the Packers’ overall sense of efficiency and urgency is going to be a terrific barometer of this season’s potential.
Do the players get in and out of drills smoothly? Do the position coaches spend an inordinate amount of time repeating information? Does McCarthy blow a gasket more often than usual?
Are the units – and not just individuals – making strides each day?
All of this will be interesting to watch as it unfolds.
The Brewers did their part. They got us to the Packers’ training camp. Now it’s time for McCarthy and Co. to begin the quest for greatness.
Chris Havel is a Packers News expert and national best-selling author. His latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ Player Autograph Parties the evening before home games.