Direct aim: Packers have unfinished business
GREEN BAY After a season in which 15 opponents were vanquished, some NFL teams might become self-congratulatory.
Big headed, even.
There has been none of that in Green Bay, however.
In fact, the talk in cheese country is all about building better mousetraps.
How to improve the tackling?
What could be done about the pass defense?
How can the Packers prepare better?
Those problems never would have been issues if the Packers had played in the postseason as they had in the regular season. But they struck out in their only at-bat, a stunning 37-20 loss to the Giants in the divisional playoff round.
As the Packers look back at 2011, they can't see past that one game.
"I don't feel good about last season at all," defensive back Charles Woodson said. "To me it's a missed opportunity to do what we all set out to do."
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league's reigning most valuable player, concurs. "Last year left a lot to be desired," he said. "I had a lot of fun doing Super Bowl coverage with NBC, but it was tough to turn around and see the Giants play out there. It was frustrating watching that film and seeing how many mistakes we all made, especially on offense. It's a good motivator for us, the disappointment."
Rodgers believes he knows where the Packers' failure was rooted.
"We got in a mindset where we weren't quite as hungry as we were the previous season," he said. "We have to get that energy back. Here's what happens, even at 15-1 there are still issues. And when you are winning, they kind of get swept under the rug.
"We have addressed some of those issues. I think we will be a more sound team and a team that will have an opportunity to put a better product on the field. I don't know if it will be 15 wins. That's really tough to do. But I think we will be a better, more fundamentally sound football team."
In particular, Rodgers says the Packers have addressed preparation issues. "On the offensive side of the ball, the levels weren't there at all times," he said. "That includes guys who weren't maybe expecting to play and had to be thrown into roles mid game or mid week as potential starters, and also guys who have been playing here for a long time and didn't have the same kind of level of preparation."
Woodson thought the defense was lulled into a false sense of security because the offense kept bailing it out all season. When the offense had four turnovers against the Giants after averaging less than one per game in the regular season, the defensive issues were exposed.
So in the offseason, the Packers spent their first six draft choices on defensive players.
From the way it looks now, they could have three new opening day defensive starters (defensive end C.J. Wilson, left outside linebacker Nick Perry and one of three cornerbacks—Jarrett Bush, Davon House or Sam Shields) and two old starters in new positions (Clay Matthews is shifting from left outside linebacker to right, and Woodson is expected to play more safety and less cornerback).
The Packers gave up more passing yards than any team in the NFL last year, in part because they failed to pressure opposing passers consistently, in part because they had tackling breakdowns and in part because they could not get off the field on third downs.
"We're going to have to grow a little there because your personnel has a chance to get a lot younger," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's not like we're going to walk out there and say, ‘Hey you have that fixed. I don't think that's realistic."
The hope is the defense improves as the season goes on. In the early stages, the Packers' inexperience won't be the only issue. They also will be without three suspended players: defensive ends Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Mike Neal (four games) and outside linebacker Erik Walden (one game).
No one is sure what defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be up to this year. The position shift of Woodson is a potentially big move for the Packers.
"I think he has all the tools to be a really good safety," Capers said of Woodson, who has dabbled in the position in certain packages in the past. "He is smart, instinctive, he understands the game and what offenses are trying to do to us. He'll be good in terms of disguising things."
The Packers may be disguising defenses, but they are not trying to disguise their disappointment over 2011. In fact, they are embracing it.