Excellent exhibitions helping Packers forget Favre
GREEN BAY While the rest of the football world was busy digesting you-know-who’s return with a division rival, the Green Bay Packers’ first-team offense was quietly enjoying an almost unstoppable preseason.
And instead of looking dazed and confused by the details of a major offseason overhaul, Green Bay’s new 3-4 defense was putting pressure on quarterbacks and taking the ball away at a remarkable rate.
No, preseason games don’t count. But going into Sunday night’s season opener against Chicago at Lambeau Field, Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes the dominant form shown by the team’s first string is the real thing.
“Now, we’re zero-and-zero, and so is Chicago,” McCarthy said. “It doesn’t mean anything as far as your record for the regular season. But hell, that’s where we are — and we expect to get better.”
The Packers’ preseason performance went a long way toward erasing memories of last season, when an ugly unretirement controversy involving the team’s once-beloved former quarterback, several key injuries and an inability to win close games all played key roles in a disappointing 6-10 record.
McCarthy fired nearly all of his defensive coaching staff in response, bringing in veteran coordinator Dom Capers to install his version of the 3-4.
And with Jay Cutler in Chicago, No. 1 draft pick Matthew Stafford in Detroit and ol’ what’s-his-name in Minnesota, playing defense in the NFC North is expected to be a significantly tougher task this season.
“A lot of attention’s been on the quarterbacks, and what quarterbacks are going to do for each team,” defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said. “We feel like we’ve got something to prove, too. We don’t feel like we’re just going to be a defense out there to let a quarterback show what he can do.”
Capers’ 3-4 relies on disguise and misdirection to generate pass-rush pressure. That’s something sorely missing from last year’s defensive scheme, which players believed was too predictable.
The Packers return almost all of last year’s defensive players, and they’ll all be adjusting to different roles — including cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson, man-to-man specialists who now will be playing more zone.
But the biggest adjustment will be for Aaron Kampman, who will try to make the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. A pass rush specialist who made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and 2007, Kampman now will find himself standing up at the line of scrimmage and sometimes dropping back into pass coverage.
Kampman spent the offseason sidestepping questions about his position switch, leading to speculation that playing outside linebacker wouldn’t have been his first choice.
But Kampman does acknowledge that the defense appears to be coming together.
“I think we showed some good things in the preseason,” Kampman said. “You don’t ever rest on that. I think the guard we have to have up is against any complacency, continuing to stay focused on the things that have gotten us to this point — not that that’s an arrival point by any stretch of the imagination. We have to stay focused and keep doing the little things we’ve been doing to get better.”
There are fewer questions on offense after a generally successful first season as a starter from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers clearly are Rodgers’ team now — and he should get a boost from an improved ground game, given that running back Ryan Grant and the offensive line are healthy after both experienced injury problems in 2008.
McCarthy grew tired of questions about Rodgers’ maturity during training camp.
“He is a hell of a quarterback, number one,” McCarthy said. “You can just see the way he plays day in and day out. But yes, I definitely think he has matured and I think we can quit talking about it. I think he is a mature man now. Let’s make it official.”
And speaking of topics McCarthy is tired of ... yes, the Packers will face Brett Favre twice: Oct. 5, a Monday night in the Metrodome, and Nov. 1 at Lambeau.
The breathless news of Favre’s arrival in Minnesota was met mostly with yawns and shoulder shrugs from his former teammates.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter who’s throwing the ball,” Woodson said. “As long as I come up with it.”