The Green Bay Packersí defense will be the story of their season.
On offense, theyíre still all Aaron Rodgers. Just like last year, the best plan against the Packers is to sit back in zones, rush four and make their quarterback pick you apart. Rodgers is good enough to do that to a lot of teams, but the Packers still donít run the ball well enough to scare anybody into playing differently.
On defense, though, the Packers look like theyíll be better than last year.
The most telling sign was when they held quarterback Russell Wilson to three points in the first half against Seattle in the third preseason game. They kept Wilson in the pocket, made him beat them with his arm and held up against running back Marshawn Lynch just well enough.
Having Nick Perry back at outside linebacker from the wrist injury that ended his rookie season is making a difference, especially against the run. Then in their nickel package, the Packers have good new inside rushers in Mike Daniels and first-round pick Datone Jones. I know the second-year pro Daniels was on the team last year, but he was a bit player last season and is much improved. He and Jones do a good job pushing the pocket.
Third, the Packersí secondary is faster and better than last season. Cornerback Sam Shields has been a shutdown cornerback in the preseason. So with him, Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward at the three cornerback spots in the nickel defense, where are quarterbacks going to throw?
The only place the Packers are vulnerable against the pass is in the center of the defense, in front of inside linebackers Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk, and then in the area behind them and in front of the safeties. But most offenses canít go on long 80-yard drives regularly. They get holding penalties, they jump offsides, they fumble, they throw interceptions.
Itís going to be tough to get big plays against those cornerbacks, and they cover well enough to keep the ball in the quarterbackís hands for that extra step that gives the pass rush just enough time to get home.
So this looks like a better defense than the one that gave up 45 points to the 49ers in the playoffs last season.
You hear some people who cover the team praise the Packersí depth and say that other teams canít wait to pick up players the Packers cut.
You know what? The preseason finale against Kansas City on Thursday night showed the Packers arenít more talented toward the bottom of their roster than any other NFL team.
The only spots where the Packers have players stacked are the secondary and maybe tight end. If they cut cornerback Davon House, which they wonít, heíd get picked up. If they cut safety Chris Banjo, which they might, somebody might pick him up.
At tight end, Brandon Bostick has to look good to other teams, and Andrew Quarless probably would get picked up because of his past play and potential. One of those two probably will get let go Saturday in the final cut to 53.
■ With how passing-oriented the Packers are, I could see them keeping only four running backs ó three halfbacks and fullback John Kuhn.
Behind Eddie Lacy, Iíd keep fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin and Alex Green, and Iíd release James Starks. I like Green over Starks because Green can return kickoffs, and Iíd even try him returning punts. I wouldnít keep receiver Jeremy Ross because heís strictly a returner. I donít think he brings much to the passing game.
■ I thought Greg Van Roten solidified his spot as the backup center against Kansas City. But he needs to get stronger in the upper body, with his off hand, if heís ever going to beat out Evan Dietrich-Smith for the starting job.
Centers snap the ball with one hand and with the other hand have to deliver a powerful strike. Van Roten needs a more powerful punch. He appears to have the temperament for the position, and he looks like a capable pass blocker because he moves his feet well. But he doesnít have great balance, and I think a lot of that is from trying to strike so hard because he doesnít have enough upper-body strength yet.
■ With Shields, Williams and Hayward at cornerback, I donít know where the Packers get rookie cornerback Micah Hyde on the field other than in the dime package.
Hyde has shown he can tackle and make plays on the ball, so maybe he can beat out safety Jerron McMillian for the dime job. The one thing Hayward didnít do well last year as the nickel back was finish blitzes. He slid off the quarterback a bunch of times, whereas Hyde has made the tackle when heís blitzed. Hayward will have to finish blitzes and tackle in the run game better than he did last year to hold off Hyde for that nickel job, but hands down heís a better downfield cover guy than Hyde.
■ Robert Francois, the Packersí top backup at inside linebacker, surprised in pass coverage Thursday night. In the second series, the Chiefs had a third-and-2 and threw a swing pass to running back Knile Davis. Francois was on the hash marks nearest the sideline, beat Davis to the first down marker and made the tackle that forced a punt. Thatís the kind of play that helps win games.
■ Jones plateaued in camp. He looked great on Family Night, and in the early practices he dominated one-on-one pass rush drills, but it seems like he hasnít progressed. Iím sure his ankle has slowed him since he sprained it on the first snap of the preseason opener. But when you play D-line in the NFL, youíre going to have sprained ankles and broken fingers and pulled hamstrings. You have to play ball.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.