Baranczyk: Peppers disappoints in preseason debut

Eric Baranczyk
Press-Gazette Media correspondent
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Two years ago, you could see in the Green Bay Packers' Family Night scrimmage and first preseason game that free-agent center Jeff Saturday was hitting the wall.

Saturday was 37 at the time and got pushed around too much. It was an early sign of issues to come, and by the end of the year he'd lost his starting job.

Now, I'm not saying that about Julius Peppers, the 34-year-old outside linebacker who this offseason was general manager Ted Thompson's big free-agent signing. But I have to say, I expected a lot more from Peppers in the Packers' preseason opener at Tennessee on Saturday night.

What's holding me back from getting off the Peppers bus early are his ungodly physical skills. He's still 6-feet-7. He's still 290 pounds, and you can't pinch him with pliers. He's Julius Peppers, he's still going to get attention from offenses, especially early in the season. But maybe expectations are too high. Either way, I thought he looked uninterested Saturday night in the 10 snaps he played in the pouring rain.

For instance, he was a big reason Titans running back Shonn Greene scored so easily on a 13-yard touchdown run that was the final play of the No. 1 defense's night. Peppers got too far up field and turned his back to the sideline, which opened a huge hole for Greene to cut inside and go for the score. There might have been a defensive mix-up, because defensive lineman Mike Daniels barreled too far inside also. But Peppers looked like, "Eh, it's preseason."

The hard rain and sloppy track made it tough for anybody to rush the quarterback, so it's hard to fault him there. But against the run, I didn't see what I expected from Peppers. I thought if he lined up across from a tight end on a running play, there was no way he'd get blocked. But he did.

That said, there are factors you have to take into account. Maybe Peppers looked at the offensive side of the ball, saw Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and Jordy Nelson not in uniform and thought, "How come all these guys younger than me get the night off, and I have to stand out here in the pouring rain?"

Peppers also has those physical gifts, and for all we know he can dial it up and beat anyone on any given day if he really wants it. We probably have to wait until Week 1 to make an evaluation. But I expected more from him in his first preseason game with his new team. Instead he looked like a 13-year vet playing in the heavy rain, thinking: "I'm not excited to be here. I'd rather be home."

Playing it safety

The Packers put a lot of money into starting safety Morgan Burnett last year when they signed him to a contract extension, but if anyone should be feeling some heat right now, it's him.

Burnett didn't play Saturday night because of an oblique strain, and in his place first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix showed up big. In fact, Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde did nice jobs and looked like three-level players. By that I mean, they can play near the line of scrimmage when they need to; they can cover tight ends bump and run, and play at linebacker depth in nickel and dime against intermediate passes; and they can get over the top.

As for Clinton-Dix, going back to Family Night last week you saw he was more than willing to fill the alleys in run defense, but you didn't get to see him tackle because that was prohibited in practice. Well, he was just as willing when there was tackling Saturday night.

Clinton-Dix had the one whiff on little halfback Dexter McCluster (5-8, 170) on the last play of the first quarter, when he missed McCluster at the line on a play that went for a 10-yard gain. But guys sometimes whiff. Clinton-Dix came back from that and showed he could tackle.

The rookie also made an eye-catching play in the passing game late in the first half. After biting on a fake by tight end Taylor Thompson and getting beat down the seam, he was athletic enough to turn and catch up, and heady enough to knock the ball out of Thompson's hands for an incompletion.

That showed a little something, because the question coming in was, does Clinton-Dix have the speed? He didn't get beat on the route because he wasn't fast or athletic enough, he got beat because he bit on the route. That's what aggressive players do, and that eventually will go away. But the question is, do they have the wherewithal and speed to catch up? He did.

I'm not willing to stick my neck out just yet and say Clinton-Dix will win the starting job over Hyde. But if he's really sharp in the next couple preseason games, that could change. Burnett still probably will get the starting nod in Week 1 nod as the veteran, but those three could end up playing in a rotation. That will sift out in the next two preseason games. And if Burnett ever gets hurt, the Packers have two physical safeties who can tackle.

Extra points

JC Tretter, the new starting center, reminds me a little of Scott Wells. They're not road graders and won't blow guys off the line of scrimmage. But like Wells, Tretter as a run blocker uses his athleticism to get in good position and turn his hips to create a crease. You saw that a couple of times against 328-pound nose tackle Sammie Hill. He stalemated Hill at the line of scrimmage, got in his way, and kept him from blowing up the play. Tretter also has the foot speed to get out to linebackers. You can get by with that kind of center as long as he's not blowing pass protections, which we won't know until the blitzes come in Week 1. And one of the biggest feathers in Tretter's cap Saturday night was he didn't miss any quarterback exchanges in the heavy rain.

■ The guy on offense who jumped off the screen was rookie tight end Richard Rodgers. This guy can block. He's a big man, 270 pounds, and is an old-school tight end like Mark Chmura or Mark Bavaro. They're big, strong guys who will get their nose dirty as blockers and also catch the ball. Not only that, but Rodgers can make a play after the catch. Sometimes those big tight ends can only catch the ball and fall down.

I doubt the Packers will split Rodgers outside much — Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick will fill that role. They'll keep Rodgers in the backfield and on the line of scrimmage. Linebackers and safeties won't know if he's going to block or go out for a pass. Then there are option plays, where he blocks first and then runs a pass route. That's where he can cause problems. He won't burn defenses down the middle, but he can be the quarterback's best friend on those short routes near the line of scrimmage when you need a first down.

■ I'm not sure you can take too much from the backup quarterbacks' play because of the heavy rain, which fell mostly while Matt Flynn played and had to hurt his performance (64.2 rating to Scott Tolzien's 100.7). Tolzien looks more poised than last season, but to overtake Flynn he's going to have to do it under more normal game conditions. Next week at St. Louis is extremely important for those guys.

— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.

Tennessee Titans running back Shonn Greene (23) runs 13 yards for a touchdown as Green Bay Packers defenders Brad Jones (59), Mike Daniels (76) and Datone Jones (95) chase him in the first quarter of Saturday’s preseason game in Nashville, Tenn.
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