Packers hope to reverse early fortunes

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Mike McCarthy starts his 10th season as Green Bay Packers coach.

Mike McCarthy has yet to deliver his introductory message to the 2015 Green Bay Packers, but his actions this offseason paint a clear portrait of what the 10th-year coach expects from his team.

That theme revolves around the idea of starting faster this season, a notion McCarthy has repeated over and over since the start of organized team activities in May. It’s not a novel concept, but has merit considering Green Bay’s 1-2 start in each of the past three years.

The Packers have rebounded each time to win the NFC North, but it’s required them to take a longer road through the playoffs. Since winning 15 games in 2011, the Packers’ past three campaigns have ended as the third, fourth and second seed, respectively.

Aaron Rodgers says he won’t panic if another 1-2 start occurs — they started 3-3 when they won the Super Bowl in 2010 — but the MVP quarterback also knows what’s at stake when the Packers open in Chicago on Sept. 13 and then host two-time defending NFC champion Seattle the following week.

“It’s all about putting yourself in position and winning the important games early sometimes that can set you for those games to be played at home,” Rodgers said after the first training camp practice Thursday. “Because I think we all know, and I think the league does as well, how difficult it is becoming to play at Lambeau. So we’d love to have the championship game at Lambeau next year.”

So what’s the key to a “fast start?” The Packers hope team chemistry and familiarity points them in the right direction. The offense returns all 11 preferred starters and the defense lost only two key contributors from its primary packages: Tramon Williams and A.J. Hawk, who was released.

Consistency is critical, especially on defense. In last year’s opener, Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson gashed the Packers’ newly unveiled 4-3 defense for 207 rushing yards in a 36-16 win at CenturyLink Field, whereas Colin Kaepernick picked apart the secondary for 404 yards in a 34-28 victory at Candlestick Park in 2013.

It was a harbinger for the rest of the season. The Packers were among the best run-stopping units early in 2013, but continued to give up a lot of yards in the air. Last year, they spent most of the season in the top 10 in passing defense and struggled against the run.

To be fair, the Packers haven’t had many cupcake games to start lately. In fact, all six of their September losses since 2012 came to eventual playoff teams: San Francisco (twice), Seattle (twice), Cincinnati and Detroit.

Still, the road to Super Bowl 50 runs through high-caliber postseason opponents. That’s why defensive back Micah Hyde feels McCarthy’s mandate hit home for a lot of players.

“He’s stressed that,” Hyde said. “Since I’ve been here, the first two seasons I had, we got off to slow starts, and he wants that to change. I think him talking about it more and more is kind of implanted in our minds, and it’s good for us to know we have to start fast.”

The defense will be tested early. Fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward and first-round draft pick Damarious Randall are leading contenders to replace Williams on the boundary, while converted outside linebacker Nate Palmer currently is the first player subbing inside when Clay Matthews moves outside. The defensive line will be without veteran Letroy Guion for three games unless his suspension is reduced.

Inside linebacker Sam Barrington isn’t deterred. He’s excited about the prospect of mixing budding playmakers like defensive lineman Mike Daniels and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with established veterans like Matthews and Julius Peppers.

Linebacker Julius Peppers takes part in the opening training camp practice for the Green Bay Packers at Ray Nitschke Field on Thursday.

“I think sky is the limit,” Barrington said. “I like what we’re doing in practice. I like what the coaches have given us as far as a tool standpoint and I’m looking forward to see where it takes us.”

Offensively, the landscape looks very familiar for Rodgers. He’s working behind the same line as last year and throwing to the same receivers. Even his backfield companions — Eddie Lacy, James Starks and John Kuhn — haven’t changed.

The layout was established once the Packers re-signed receiver Randall Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga in March. Immediately, all the pieces were in place to build upon last year’s performance when Green Bay led the NFL in scoring (30.4 points per game).

“It doesn’t feel like there needs to be a lot of change,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got the team that we want. You’re always making little adjustments from year to year. But we know how close we were last year, and we know how difficult it is to get to that point and it’s about playing the right way and giving yourself as many opportunities as possible.”

McCarthy made a lot of changes to the team’s schedule and preparation last year in an effort to alleviate the injury problems that plagued them in 2012 and 2013. Outside of a few minor changes, players reported that they haven’t noticed many substantial alterations going into this year.

Lacy and left guard Josh Sitton said the emphasis on a faster start is more of a mental challenge. If anything can be linked to quickening the pace, it’s the collective experience of playing together.

“I think there’s definitely an advantage returning every guy on offense, I’m sure we haven’t done that at all in the past,” Sitton said. “It’s a huge thing for us. The more time you can get next to someone, the better you’re going to be. It’s simple. Experience, it’s the one thing you can’t work on. It’s something that comes with time and it’s very important.”

The Packers returned players who accounted for an NFL-leading 95 percent of their offensive snaps from last season, according to ESPN. That’s one of the prevailing reasons many have the Packers pegged to win the NFC and advance to their sixth Super Bowl.

The biggest games will be fought once the calendar turns to January and February, but wins in September go a long way in creating favorable matchups. After spending the past few seasons chasing, the Packers hope this is their year to grab an early lead.

“I think my rookie year we started off at San Fran, last year at Seattle — those are good teams,” Hyde said. “Just like if a team was to come in here Week 1, we like to think that if anyone comes to our home field we’re going to beat them.

“I’m not saying that’s the excuse because it’s an away game, but we’ve played against some good teams, and hopefully we can switch it up this year.”

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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