Mitchell got it going with a look at the offensive line. In no particular order, I'm moving onto the secondary (cornerbacks and safeties). Despite a great 2008 season, this group has made some news of late and are going through a transition to a new defense under Dom Capers.
I've been hestitant to talk about the new scheme in the secondary because I have not been sure what it is. But CB Tramon Williams spelled it out last week:
"It’s not much of a difference. We get to play off man now, get to see the quarterback more and it actually helps us get jumps on routes, read the quarterback’s steps and his progression," said Williams. "In man to man, we never got the chance to see all that, we always had our back to the quarterback -- because we had to follow whoever we had. Now you can actually see everything that’s progressing and you have much more to work with."
In man to man, the cornerbacks were usually within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. They would try and jam the receiver to disrupt the route and timing. They are always looking at the receiver and rarely at the quarterback. They were right at the line to disrupt the quick routes on the QBs 3-step drop. If the receiver went deep, they turned their back to the QB and followed the receiver.
In off-man, they start out several yards from the receiver, so no more jamming at the line. They get to look in the backfield to see if the QB does a 3-step drop. If he does, then the cornerback will have to break to the ball. They'll know where to go because the QB only has a couple options in that situation. If the receiver goes deep, the coverage will look a lot like it did last season.
The new off-man scheme is not a cover-2 (or zone coverage) scheme.
Can the Packers' learn this new scheme? Uh-huh:
When asked if he isn't suited to play zone, [CB Al ]Harris responded: "Why, why wouldn't it suit me? We're not hacks here. We're pros. Man, I'm a corner. There isn't a technique that I haven't played."
Passing defense in 2008. They led the NFL with 6 INTs returned for TDs. No. 3 overall with 22 INTs. No. 3 overall with 110 pass defenses. As Al Harris would say, they were not hacks.
Ranked 7th overall by Football Outsiders. Despite the great season described above, they did allow 3,244 yards passing (No. 12 overall) and 22 TDs (No. 21 overall). There is some room for improvement and they are a step behind the top 5 pass defenses (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Tennessee and Minnesota).
It is interesting to note that a couple of these teams, Baltimore in particular, are not exactly blessed with great players in the secondary. Baltimore's secondary had one cast off from Oakland (CB Fabian Washington), another cast off from Buffalo (S Jim Leonhard), two former Pro Bowl players who were released after the season ended (CB Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle), and another cast off from Green Bay (CB Frank Walker).
CB Charles Woodson. 2009 Pro Bowl attendee. He's started 44 games over the last three seasons. He's played through injuries and been great at intercepting the ball. But he is not often asked to cover the receiver deep, so that might not be something he is great at anymore.
CB Al Harris. 2009 Pro Bowl attendee. A lacerated spleen could have ended his season, but he came back after the bye week, and played well enough to make the Pro Bowl. In 2007, Harris had some really bad games, capped off with a bad game against WR Plaxico Burress in the NFC Championship. But he rarely got beat in 2008. He'll always have a low interception total, but a high total of pass defenses.
CB Tramon Williams. A lock to be named as the nickel back, and he'll be in on over 50% of the plays in 2009 even if he isn't officially listed as a starter. It was a surprise when he made the team in 2007. Then he outplayed CB Jarrett Bush in training camp to take the nickel spot away from him. He finished 2008 with 9 starts, 14 pass defenses, and 5 INTs. He gave up the occassional big play, so there still is some room for improvement. But he was so much better in 2008 vs. 2007 that he does have the potential to improve.
S Nick Collins. 2009 Pro Bowl attendee. He showed promise in 2005 and 2006, but right as I expected him to break out in 2007, something held him back. It might have been the injuries that forced him to miss 3 games in 2007, but maybe he just wasn't good enough. Then he blew all my expectations away with an outstanding 2008 season. I've always thought he had the physical talents and now the football IQ seems to match. I expect he'll be a good to great player going forward.
S Atari Bigby. 2008 was a lost season for him as battled a variety of injuries. The Packers tendered him a $1.5 million contract, which is a lot for a restricted free agent. The Packers would have been rewarded a 2nd round pick if another team signed him (which effectively prevented him from signing with anybody). That indicates that he is still the starter. He's not great in pass coverage because he gives the receivers a lot of cushion, but I'm eager to see how he'll play in 2009.
CB Pat Lee. The 2nd round pick in 2008 looked lost during the preseason, but when he was forced into action when Harris was injured, he looked good. Not perfect, but good for a rookie. He'll either continue to improve as the 4th CB or maybe battle Williams for the nickel job.
CB/S Jarrett Bush. I was surprised when the Packers matched Tennessee's free agent offer. He rarely played on defense last season, and he mixed in some great special teams plays with some dumb penalties. He can play on defense in a pinch, but he's primarily around as a special teams player.
CB Will Blackmon. He's a great kick returner, but he looked awful when he actually got some playing time at cornerback in 2008. But that was a small sample size; he only played a handful of defensive plays in 2008.
S Aaron Rouse. He looked great as a rookie in 2007, but struggled in 2008. He took some bad angles which led to some big plays, while showing off a lack of speed. Although he did have the big 99 yard INT returned for a TD against MVP QB Peyton Manning. He's still firmly entrenched as the top backup at safety, but he doesn't deserve to start over Collins or Bigby either.
S Anthony Smith. One of the two "big" 2009 free agent signings. Bigby has been held out of the OTAs as he recovers from off-season surgery, and Collins is staying away from the voluntary camps, although I expect he'll show up once the OTA becomes mandatory, so Smith has gotten a lot of time with the first string defense in practice. The 25 year old was a former 3rd round pick in 2006 who started 14 games in Pittsburgh, before becoming a forgotten man in 2008, so he might be someone who can turn his career around with a change of scenary.
There are a few other cornerbacks and safeties on the roster, but they'll all have to battle for a roster spot. I don't expect any of them will beat out any of the 10 players I've listed above, or even force their way on the roster as the 11th man in the secondary.
This is arguably the best unit on the entire team, and I'm expecting another great season from them.