PLAYERS WHO NEED TO STEP UP Jerry Gilbert 9/24/08
The loss to Dallas on September 21 was not a disaster. The youngest team in the National Football League, the Green Bay Packers may realistically be expected to improve as the season progresses and could be in the race to the Super Bowl by the end of 2008. On the other hand, the Packers may be the type of team that can beat teams like Detroit but not compete with the best teams such as Dallas.
Which team we will see as the season progresses will depend on the ability of players to make game changing play as at critical times along with playing consistently well on a down to down basis. Consistent play by both the offensive and defensive linemen was not in evidence against the Cowboys. On defense, nose tackle Ryan Pickett played his worst game of the season. He will return to form, but on the other side of the ball different starters could be the answer. The return of Scott Wells at center will permit Jason Spitz to resume playing guard, and two positions should be better than they were against Dallas. The question is whether any of these players will provide crucial plays that change games. Consistency may be about what we can expect from these players.
Returning to the defensive front four, end Aaron Kampman and end and tackle Cullen Jenkins are each capable of changing games. Jenkins showed that ability on Sunday with two consecutive plays in the offensive backfield to force a punt by the Cowboys. He brought back memories of Reggie White. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is unlikely to be the play maker he once was, but if he steps forward a time a two, the team will be better. The real key to success on defense will come from better play at defensive tackle. Here the key performer could be nose tackle Colin Cole or, when he returns from injury later in the season, Justin Harrell. Ryan Pickett cannot plug the middle on every play. Some stops on third or fourth and one need to be made by the other tackles. Johnny Jolly is capable of a big play on occasion. Colin Cole needs to rise at least to that level.
Offensive linemen are rarely mentioned in the context of a big play. However, the guard or tackle who blocks two or three defenders on one play may spring the running back for the winning score. Picking up a blitzer could permit the long pass. I have watched film of former center Mike Flanagan in his prime. He would block or impede up to three players on a single rushing play to permit Ahman Green to run for a big gain. Scott Wells is not an athlete on that level, but reserve guard Allen Barbre might be. If Barbre could show the consistency to win a starting spot, his athleticism would then be available possibly to make that difficult and game changing block.
Among the wide receivers and tight ends, the candidates to break though to a significantly higher level of performance include James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Tory Humphrey. We are waiting for Jones to use his size and strength to wrestle a pass from a defender in good position to catch it. We need to see him break some tackles and run over a safety. Nelson has the size and speed to be deep threat. Few rookie receivers play at a level above adequacy, but if Nelson proves to be a quicker study, the passing offense could be nearly unstoppable. At tight end, Tory Humphrey has the speed to run past defenders. He has yet to become a factor in the offense.
With the offensive line returning to a state of health, one may hope for a more consistent rushing attack. Brandon Jackson is showing signs that he can contribute as an every down back who can break a long run from time to time. He may be needed unless Ryan Grant can break out of the pattern of most players who hold out for a new contract and miss training camp. They tend to get injured, and running backs in that position seem to fumble more than they had in the previous season. Grant needs at least to return to his level of last season, and he owes it to the team to justify the contract he received. Fullback Corey Hall already made a significant play with his diving touchdown catch against the Vikings. It should not be asking too much of this talented special teams performer to cause a turnover or two as the season progresses.
In the defensive backfield, significant contributions are needed form cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Will Blackmon. If Al Harris cannot finish the season, Rookie Pat Lee will have to become a consistent defender. With Harris on the field these players are important. Without him, their play could determine how often the team wins. Safety Nick Collins finally hung on to an interception this year. Collins and Atari Bigby each have momentum-changing ability. If they come through in nearly every game, the defense could be pretty good.
Finally, the Packers will need exceptional play from the kickers. Mason Crosby appears to be reliable, but to be an all-star, he needs to hit the fifty yarder on a windy day as time expires. As to new punter Derrick Frost we need to see minimal competence before expecting excellence. However, a sixty-yard non-returnable punt from deep in his own territory would be a good start.
The Green Bay Packers have enough talent and coaching skill to play well against nearly every team in the league. The difference between a close win and a close loss will be whether key plays are made when needed. The plays were there against Minnesota, but other than the pass reception by Korey Hall, the plays came from expected sources, punt returner Will Blackmon, receiver Greg Jennings, and running back Ryan Grant. If these and other players make similar plays in games to come, the Packers will have a successful season.