ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 6
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The battalion of satellite trucks was long gone when the Green Bay Packers reported to training camp this summer, having vacated the premises shortly after quarterback Brett Favre was traded in August 2008.
Every player was signed and accounted for, making a distant memory of holdouts that have disrupted training camp in each of the past two seasons.
All that remained was the type of tranquility that allows a team to come of age. Many of us believe the Packers have the makings of a special group, one that is already off to a good start with a productive and --- more importantly -- quiet training camp.
"We determine our path that we're going to take," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Maybe we have less obstacles going into the year than we've had in the past for people to evaluate. If they think that and like us more this year, that's fine. But in reality, if you don't come here and put in the time and put in that foundation, it doesn't matter. These are our foundation days, and I like the work our guys have been putting in."
Quiet and determined, the Packers have been busy implementing some second-year wrinkles into defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme. They're facilitating the continued growth of tight end Jermichael Finley and are literally working overtime to rectify their special teams and kicking problems from a year ago.
These Packers are thinking big -- as big as it gets. So are their fans. I spotted more than a few "Super Bowl or bust" signs in the training camp bleachers last week. Those expectations are deserved and embraced in Green Bay.
"We have the right pedigree," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "... I like the way we're practicing. But a lot of things have to happen between now and the end of the season. You have to have a couple things go your way, you have to be able to stay healthy, and you have to execute down the stretch and win some games in the end."
Make no mistake, however. The building blocks are in place.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Have the Packers done enough to address the pass defense that let them down in losses to Pittsburgh and Arizona last season? Three focal points jumped out during my visit to camp.
First, McCarthy has instituted mandatory tackling drills every day, an effort to limit yards after catch. You might not think that tackling is directly related to pass defense, but the Packers determined their problems stemmed as much from broken tackles after modest catches as they did from a lack of pass rush or poor coverage. So it's been back to the most basic of fundamentals this summer.
"If you're a high schooler," McCarthy said, "this is the practice you want to learn from."
Second, the Packers are committed to leaving second-year defensive lineman B.J. Raji at nose tackle rather than shifting him between tackle and end in their base scheme. Raji was unstoppable in an inside role at Boston College, and while the Packers' 3-4 scheme is not entirely comparable, this arrangement represents the Packers' best opportunity for collapsing the pocket.
Finally, there were some encouraging signs from two young cornerbacks the Packers are counting on for improved depth. Pat Lee grabbed an athletic interception by jumping over receiver James Jones during one practice, and second-year player Brandon Underwood has caught everyone's eye. Most recently, he returned an interception for a touchdown during a live period of Saturday's Family Night scrimmage. Rodgers and McCarthy went out of their way to mention Underwood during recent interviews.
"He's had a great camp," Rodgers said. McCarthy added: "Brandon is clearly a much more mature player. He has all the skills. ... The thing about him, he's a tough, smart guy, too. He's got a chance to be a really good player."
2. Can Finley continue his path to stardom? Rodgers picked up the phone shortly after the Pro Bowl, where he worked with tight ends Vernon Davis and Jason Witten, and called Finley. "I firmly believe Jermichael Finley is in their class," Rodgers said. "He is a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end. And that's what I told him. I said, 'You've got a lot of work in front of you, but you've got the talent and ability to be recognized as a Pro Bowl tight end every year.'"
As I noted during the offseason, Rodgers threw more toward Finley than any other Packers player during the second half of last season. He changed the way opponents approached the Green Bay offense, and he spent much of the offseason working to upgrade his blocking skills to give the Packers more of a run-pass option when he is in the game. After dabbling in boxing and mixed martial arts to improve his hand quickness, Finley said: "I'm still a work in progress with my blocking and stuff. I just need to maintain and stay consistent. If I get that straight, the sky is the limit for me."
3. Can the Packers straighten out their special teams? Rankings for combined coverage and return performance in the NFL are elusive, but Football Outsiders provides a reliable independent analysis. FO gave the Packers the worst special-teams rating in the league last season, and McCarthy has reacted with a number of measures that suggest the analysis is spot on.
The Packers are now devoting an extra 10 minutes to special teams per practice, a significant number considering how regimented modern-day NFL practices have become. They are holding an open competition to replace punter Jeremy Kapinos, for now pitting former Australian rules player Chris Bryan against Tim Masthay, and they welcomed a newly conditioned place-kicker Mason Crosby this summer.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is using the extra time to run coverage drills that emphasize controlled engagement with opponents. As for the punting competition, I couldn't say there was much separation between Bryan and Masthay. "Those guys are kicking it high and kicking it long," Slocum said.
As for Crosby, who struggled during the second half of last season, Slocum said: "Physically, I think he's at his best since I've been with him. He really put in some work in the summer and spring to increase his core strength. I think you're going to see that in his kickoff distance and from a field goal standpoint." Crosby missed five of his first 11 training camp kicks, but Slocum acknowledged that rotating Masthay and Bryan as holders probably played a role.
"We're working right now to build the cohesiveness of the hold, the snap and the kick," he said. "We missed a couple field goals, but I think his mentality is right where it needs to be, and we're working to get that together."
As if on cue, Crosby was lights-out during Saturday's Family Night scrimmage, drilling seven of eight attempts -- including shots from 47, 51 and 53 yards.
I would never have guessed receiver Donald Driver would have a contract extension by the end of the first week of camp. From the outside, you could have put two and two together and wondered if he wasn't entering his final season with the team. After all, Driver has already set the franchise record for career receptions. He turned 35 in the offseason, was entering the final year of his existing deal and would need to hold off a hard-charging young receiver in Jordy Nelson. But it didn't take the Packers long to realize Driver is rejuvenated after having both knees cleaned out this spring. "I feel so much better," he said.
To this point, the Packers have been unable to find a spot for veteran linebacker Brady Poppinga in their scheme. During a midweek shakeup of the linebacker depth chart, Poppinga found himself behind Brandon Chillar, Clay Matthews and Brad Jones. He was later sidelined by a concussion. Poppinga is a good player who might be better suited as a 4-3 linebacker -- or, if he bulked up, a 4-3 defensive end.
Although there is a long way to go, it appears incumbent Daryn Colledge is holding off Jason Spitz for the starting left guard spot. Spitz has also been working behind center Scott Wells and would seem to be an ideal multi-position backup. The rest of the offensive line appears healthy and set: Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher at tackles, with Colledge and Josh Sitton at guards.
Although the Packers dramatically cut down their sack totals during the second half of last season, pass protection remains a point of emphasis. "We've got to do a better job of cutting down sacks and negative yardage plays," Rodgers said. He added that Finley's presence "opens up the field" for the offense and, in turn, makes it more difficult for defenses to mount a pass rush. I thought it was an interesting, if not direct, correlation and will take a closer look at that in the coming weeks.
From the outside, cornerback Al Harris appears to be in phenomenal condition as he completes his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury. McCarthy said Harris is "champing at the bit" to begin practicing, but he simply hasn't been cleared medically. Still, the Packers are much more optimistic about Harris' future than they were a few months ago. McCarthy said Harris was "a big question mark" at the end of spring practice but said there is "no reason to think" Harris won't return to the field in 2010. "I just don't want him to do too much too fast," McCarthy said. "I don't want him to have a setback."
The Packers made a number of experimental adjustments to their base linebacker group, most notably moving Matthews to the left side and inserting Chillar on the right side. The move was prompted by a minor injury that caused Brad Jones to miss several days of practice, and the switchback has yet to occur. "Brandon is sort of a multi-purpose guy for us last year and we've liked what we've seen from him," Capers said. One way or the other, Chillar is going to play a lot this season.
Safety Atari Bigby will miss about a month of practice because of ankle surgery, and it's quite possible the Packers will open the season with rookie Morgan Burnett in the starting lineup. While the Packers are excited about Burnett's future, it's always a tough task to get rookies ready to start in Week 1. Understandably, Burnett is swimming in the playbook right now. "By the end of training camp," he said, "I'll have everything that I need down."
McCarthy has installed a sign on the office wall of each coordinator. It reads: "Less volume, more creativity." McCarthy said it applies mostly to his own offensive play-calling, but it's also appropriate to keep in mind as the Packers enter their second year in Capers' scheme.
The early-camp understanding has been that Will Blackmon will resume his role as the primary kickoff and possible punt returner, but Blackmon's surgically-repaired knee has been sore and cost him a number of practices during the first week. He didn't participate in the Family Night scrimmage, but McCarthy attributed his absence to normal post-surgery soreness.