- Kevin Seifert, NFL Nation
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As he always does, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has closely followed media coverage of NFL training camps this summer. Rodgers has seen multiple national networks covering every minute of Denver Broncos camp, where the arrival of Peyton Manning has drawn rock-star attention. He has seen the frenzy in New York, home of the Super Bowl champions and the most famous backup quarterback in the league.
In Green Bay, on the other hand, the Packers have trained in their quiet biosphere at 1265 Lombardi Avenue. Remember, over the past 19 months this team has captured a Super Bowl championship and won 21 of 23 games, including playoffs. The oversight has left Rodgers glowing with genuine glee, knowing he and the Packers have their competitors right where they want them.
"I think we're in a good position," Rodgers said. "A lot people are talking about other teams, which is always helpful to us. Nobody is going to forget about the Packers, but there are plenty of things to distract national attention away from us. And for whatever reason, we usually play a little bit better when that's the case.
"You've got what's going on with both teams in New York, Super Bowl stuff and that other stuff going on. You've got Peyton in Denver, and the Eagles with their talent and Dallas making a comeback this year. So I think that helps us out … that we're sort of flying under the radar."
As much as any athlete I've covered, Rodgers has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to manufacture a perceived slight into motivation. As a team leader, and now the second-longest tenured player on the Packers' roster, he sets the tone for a team that is primed for another Super Bowl run -- regardless of national attention. And it's clear that Rodgers has already begun the process of placing chips on as many shoulders as he can in the locker room.
Roughly 10 days into training camp, the Packers are the best team no one is talking about. Which suits them just fine.
"The Packers Way has been passed down for years," Rodgers said. "Just kind of keeping your mouth shut and playing."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Added juice: The first week of training camp was notable for its elevated energy, both from an audio and a competitive standpoint. An influx of loud and excitable defensive players, from veterans Anthony Hargrove and Daniel Muir to rookie Jerel Worthy, brought a new dynamic and is a big part of why Rodgers said the Packers will have a better team in 2012.
As he spoke with two reporters in the locker room this week, Rodgers raised his voice multiple times to be heard above the din of his exuberant teammates. And during practice, there was a clear increase in verbal jockeying between the offense and defense, at least compared to what I've seen in recent Packers camps.
Higher energy doesn't necessarily equal a better chance to win, but the consensus around the team was that the locker room mix needed a shift from the professorial mentality it fell into last year.
"This group," coach Mike McCarthy said, "has more personality with what they bring to the locker room. You have some guys now with a lot of personality and juice, and obviously we've added talent on the defensive side of the ball. There's a lot more juice out there, and it's not just the rookies."
2. Running game: McCarthy spoke this offseason about reevaluating the Packers' running game, but nothing has happened so far to suggest the team will re-balance its offense. If there are any changes, the Packers will be looking for ways to yield more explosive runs of 12-plus yards.
Last season, the Packers had 29 runs that went for 12 or more yards, tied for No. 24 in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. A few more would help slow opposing pass rushes and further open the Packers' already-lethal play-action game.
"Run more?" Rodgers said. "I don't see it happening drastically at all. It's not our identity. But running more effectively and picking the five or six or seven runs that we really like and are our best opportunity for those 12-yard gains? That's what we're going to try to do."
James Starks will get an opportunity to be the Packers' primary back. But second-year player Alex Green appears recovered from a torn ACL suffered last season and has worked in rotation with Starks and Brandon Saine during camp.
3. Return of (the real) Tramon Williams: After giving up more passing yards than any team in NFL history last season, the Packers have added some new pass-rushers to their defensive line and linebacker group. They shifted Charles Woodson to safety in their base defense and lauded the progress of third-year safety Morgan Burnett. But just as important in the presumed improvement of their pass defense has been the recovery of cornerback Tramon Williams, who demonstrated complete confidence in a now-healed shoulder that limited his 2011 effectiveness.
"It's actually really doing fine," Williams said. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do out there. Jamming. No pain. No anything. Just ready to play. … I had never been injured in any way in my career. But it's an obstacle that stood in front of me last year and I knew I needed to get through it. I was able to go out there and go to battle with my teammates and I think they respect me for it today.
"But for this last year, it was what it was. Obviously it wasn't 100 percent. I've worked hard this offseason to get back as far as I can to that. I'm ready to go. Hopefully it turns out well."
Woodson will move to the slot cornerback role in the Packers' nickel and dime defense, meaning that Williams is in essence the Packers' top cover man. Remember, Williams was a Pro Bowl player in 2010. The early portion of camp this summer suggested that he is physically ready to take on that role.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Packers return what should be an elite offense led by the reigning MVP. They have solid special teams and worked aggressively this offseason to overhaul their one significant weakness in 2011.
Eight new players -- five rookies and three veteran free-agent acquisitions -- are in the mix to play significant roles in the pass defense. Another pair of players who were rookies last season, cornerback Davon House and safety M.D. Jennings, are currently working with the first team.
Sometimes there can be safety in numbers. Not every draft pick and free-agent signing will work out. But an optimist would say the Packers took enough swings to ensure they make contact at least a few times this season. Or something like that.
REASON FOR PESIMISSM
Here's the downside of relying on so many young players to improve a sore spot: They're young players. There's no telling what direction they'll go in, or how long it will take them to get to a point where they can contribute consistently.
It sounds great to draft a pair of athletic pass-rushers like Worthy and linebacker Nick Perry. But when will it kick in for them? Is it even fair to expect immediate results? Remember, Clay Matthews had three sacks midway through his rookie season before finishing with 10.
Can the Packers count on second-year player Davon House to start at cornerback? Or will they have to turn to rookie Casey Hayward? And is it reasonable to assume that second-year player M.D. Jennings will have a seamless transition at safety? Or will the Packers have to turn rookie Jerron McMillian?
Sometimes people equate new with better. There is no reason to suspect any particular trouble with the Packers' defensive changes, but the premise itself merits further scrutiny.
"That's the exciting thing when you've got young guys," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "They're bright-eyed and they've got a lot of energy. They're getting better, but still too much inconsistency. After every practice you see some improvement, but fortunately we don't have to play a game right now."
As good as the Packers' offense was last season, coaches have found plenty of ways to push for improvement. According to Rodgers, coaches have presented statistical comparisons between the Packers' offense last season and the previous four Super Bowl teams in third-down percentage, red zone touchdowns and goal line performance, among other categories. "They're challenging us to do maybe one more third down per game to get us to [that] level," Rodgers said, "and one more conversion on the season in goal-to-go to get us in this ranking. If you look at it like that, we can definitely improve. But if you look at it as a whole, it's going to be tough to put up those kind of numbers."
The Packers have significantly increased the time they spend working on tackling drills and fundamentals during camp, the result of poor tackling in their playoff loss to the New York Giants and other games last season. "We're emphasizing it as much as we possibly can," McCarthy said. "It's on every slide we show in meetings and talked about in every correction period. It's talked about continuously throughout team and in coordinator meetings. To me, that's coaching. If you want to have it on Sunday, it's got to show up every day in your training structure."
For the first time in the McCarthy era, the Packers entered training camp with five set starters along the offensive line. There are no rotations under way and no competitions to judge. Center Jeff Saturday is new to the organization, but he is getting every practice repetition with the first team. Said offensive line coach James Campen: "Just from a familiarity standpoint, the communication, passing off stunts, getting a feel for the guys next to you, obviously that's more advantageous. The more reps that you get with the same guy side by side, it's is very helpful."
Usually it's good news when you don't notice the left tackle during training camp practices, and there wasn't much to note about Marshall Newhouse until Wednesday morning. Matthews smoked him twice during a team blitz drill, but otherwise Newhouse has continued to earn praise from the coaches grading his work. "Marshall has had a very good camp so far," Campen said. "[Wednesday,] Clay got the best of him a couple times. They each get the best of each other a little bit. This was practice No. 6. It was a little rough for him. Clay brought some new stuff to him, and it's a great opportunity for him to go against somebody like that."
Wide receiver Donald Driver reported to training camp in his usual fantastic shape and made quick work of several young cornerbacks in red zone drills. There is every reason to believe Driver will make the Packers' final 53-man roster, once again making the Packers' receiver rotation a complicated proposition. If everyone is healthy, there are going to be some talented players standing on the sidelines.
On a couple of occasions last season, the Packers found a way to get receiver Randall Cobb on the field as a quasi-running back in the backfield. I wouldn't be surprised at all if they seek additional opportunities to do that in 2012. It's a great way to get a versatile player on the field.
A final note on receivers: There was a lot of offseason discussion about the fate of youngsters Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel if the Packers decided to keep Driver on the roster. Gurley and Borel are nice players, but let's just say Lambeau Field would still stand if they are waived and another team claims them. It'll fall somewhat short of losing Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
The Packers have three players suspended for the start of the regular season: Hargrove (eight games) and defensive lineman Mike Neal (four), along with linebacker Erik Walden (one). Only Walden was involved in an off-the-field incident, however, and Rodgers said the Packers "don't put up" with off-field distractions. "We've got good leadership," he said. "Guys hold each other accountable. It starts with the guys up top, the guys we bring in. We bring in a lot of high-character guys who fall in and understand what it means to put on the colors and the tradition here. It's not to say that stuff doesn't happen, because it does happen. We had some instances last year. But for the most part I think it's the kind of guys that [the Packers] bring in."