Aaron Rodgers doesn’t know how opposing defenses will line up against the Green Bay Packers'; offense this fall, but he’s itching to find out.
There was no suspense a year ago. Without top receiver Jordy Nelson, defenses consistently dropped a safety closer to the line of scrimmage as an extra defender against the run.
It contradicted conventional wisdom for how opposing defenses should align against a two-time MVP quarterback, but worked splendidly after the San Francisco 49ers debuted the one-high-safety defense in Week 4. Most defenses followed that blueprint through the rest of the season, stifling the Packers' passing offense.
Nelson is back now. He already has started running routes with Rodgers in organized team activity sessions. The team opens its three-day minicamp Tuesday.
So the question is whether Nelson’s return will force defenses to keep two safeties in coverage, or whether they stick with what worked against the Packers last season.
“I’m interested in how teams are going to play us,” Rodgers said.
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If opposing defenses drop their safeties into a Cover-2 look, it will heighten the importance of running back Eddie Lacy rebounding from last season’s disappointment. It didn’t help Lacy’s production that he was forced to go against an extra defender in the box each week. Lacy finished with a career-low 758 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
Lacy’s yards-per-carry average was identical to his rookie season. The difference, of course, was the Packers were without Rodgers (broken collarbone) for seven games in 2013. With an MVP quarterback under center for a full season, Lacy should have averaged more yards per carry than when he shared the backfield with Matt Flynn.
Along with Lacy’s lack of adequate conditioning, perhaps the influx of Cover-1 defenses made a bigger-than-anticipated difference last season. Rodgers certainly sounded last week like he still has faith in the Packers' ability to move the football on the ground, especially against the Cover-2.
“In ’11, we saw a lot of Cover-2,” Rodgers said, “and we didn’t run it as well as we do now. We run the football a lot better up front, and then having Eddie and James (Starks) to run the football.
“If teams play Cover-2 against us and shade a safety to Jordy’s side, we’re going to have to run the ball effectively.”
That’s not to say Rodgers expects opposing defenses to play Cover-2 early next season.
There is no guarantee Nelson, at age 31, will be the same dynamic receiver after missing a full season because of reconstructive knee surgery. It could also be hard for opposing defensive coordinators to stray from dropping a safety in the box after seeing how well Cover-1 worked a year ago.
“Looking at the trend in the NFL now,” Rodgers said, “it’s actually a lot of one-high stuff, and that comes out of Seattle and Denver with what they’ve been doing with their corners — drafting or signing big corners who can lock down receivers, and then trying to stop the run.
“If you do that, then you have some good one-on-one matchups on the outside for Randall (Cobb), who didn’t get a lot of one-on-one last year, and then obviously Jordy coming back.”
The Packers should have more talent with their offensive personnel this season than last. They added tight end Jared Cook through free agency, and he will join incumbent starter Richard Rodgers to provide what Rodgers considers “depth” at the position. The Packers also have more depth along their offensive line after drafting Jason Spriggs in the second round this spring, addressing a major issue at the end of last season.
Most notably, the Packers could have seven receivers vying for a spot on the 53-man roster. It’s significantly more bodies than they had in their final games last season, when injuries left only three healthy receivers on the roster.
But Rodgers isn’t making any bold claims for next season’s offense. For one, he’d like to see what defensive looks the Packers face first.
“I don’t want to make that big of a statement yet,” Rodgers said. “… I’m going to wait — we obviously think we have some good players and we look good on paper but I’m not going to make any big expectations on our offense at this point.”