GREEN BAY – Nothing’s ever easy.
The Green Bay Packers are coming off a 15-1 season and returning starters at almost every position, yet their followers’ fretting and sweating only increases as the regular season draws near.
There are several reasons for concern. Some are old. Some are new.
None can be considered shocking. All are valid.
Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop’s season-ending hamstring injury is a major blow to a Packers’ defense that already was suspect. Cornerback Davon House’s shoulder injury also qualifies as a setback.
Yet both players were injured and unavailable at times last season.
Furthermore, every NFL team is forced to deal with injuries. The 2010 Packers were glorified for their ability to overcome injuries en route to victory over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.
The Packers’ defense is also a concern.
It is too early to nickname defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ group “The Sieves” because everything goes through them. But it’s close.
Again, it also isn’t a shock. The Packers’ defense ranked at or near the bottom in every major category last season. The greatest deficiency was in the pass rush, although the run defense had its poor moments, too.
Then there is the running game, or lack thereof.
The more I watch other NFL teams this season, the more concerned I am about the Packers’ absolute lack of a running attack. The problem isn’t that Packers coach Mike McCarthy is ignoring that part of the offense. The problem is the running backs.
Green Bay has no one with the moves or explosiveness of the Indianapolis Colts’ Donald Brown, or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Chris Rainey, or even the Cleveland Browns’ Brandon Jackson.
That’s right. Even former Packers back Brandon Jackson looked stronger, quicker and more confident than the Packers’ backs.
Suddenly, the 15-1 record and all the offensive fireworks seem like a long time ago.
So what are the Packers to do?
The first order of business is to get newly acquired running back Cedric Benson up to speed. Benson needs to be given every chance to breathe life into a lethargic running attack.
Imagine what life would be like if Aaron Rodgers could fake a handoff, drop back, survey the field and fire to the open receiver. The Packers won’t have to imagine that scenario if Benson provides a spark.
Before the Packers’ 35-10 preseason loss to Cleveland, I was willing to chalk up the poor running attack to a lot of factors, the greatest of which is that the Packers are a passing team. That doesn’t cut it anymore. What the Packers need to be is more balanced offensively.
That isn’t likely to happen if James Starks is the lead ball carrier and he is backed up by Brandon Saine, who has been injured this training camp, and Alex Green, who is still coming back from last year’s knee injury.
Benson isn’t going to be a cure-all to the running attack, but he should be able to give it a semblance of respectability.
Fixing the defense is more complicated.
So far, first-round pick Nick Perry has flashed at outside linebacker, but he’s far from a sure-fire hell raising pass rusher. The Packers recorded zero sacks against the Browns and rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. What will they do against the 49ers and Alex Smith in the opener?
The easiest solution is also the simplest.
The Packers’ defense needs to play better. The returning defenders need to play better. Sure, rookie Jerel Worthy is going to have to contribute, but B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson need to be stout at the point of attack. They got blown off the line against the Browns.
A.J. Hawk needs to take more of a leading role. He has the pedigree and experience to shoulder the load. If Hawk and other veterans don’t step up and deliver in Bishop’s absence it won’t matter what the rookies do.
Frankly, the Packers have been disappointing thus far.
A lot of that disappointment can be washed away on Thursday at Cincinnati with a strong defensive effort. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green will provide a strong test.
So will a rejuvenated Bengals defense under head coach Marvin Lewis.
With a strong performance the Packers could answer some questions instead of raising more.
It will require focus from the players, and patience from the fans.
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.