The final outcome matters little in the preseason. Coaches care much more about the preparedness of their starting units and the development of young players behind them. The Packers win over the Rams may have evened their preseason record at 1-1, but what Mike McCarthy noticed is the impressive displays from his starting offense and defense. He's also concerned with the back end of his roster. With less than three weeks separating Green Bay from their Week 1 battle with the defending champion Seahawks, whatever roster spots may be up for grabs will soon be solidified.
The offensive line might be as incredible as advertised
After the new-look offensive line debuted last week, the unit garnered deserved praise for the consistent holes it opened for James Starks and the Packers' stable of running backs. JC Tretter and Bryan Bulaga were highlighted for their dominating performances. Yet those kudos came with a caveat; Green Bay's strong showing came against a Titans defense that finished middle of the pack in traditional metrics and bottom ten according to advanced analytics like DVOA. Muddling the evaluation further, Tennessee is in the midst of a 3-4 conversion from which players are still adjusting. Here's what we wrote at the time:
It's worth noting that the Titans are in the midst of a transition to a 3-4 defense and are experience growing pains because of it. It's also true that the Packers' offense only attempted one pass before pulling most of the starters, making it impossible to evaluate the pass protection. That said, Green Bay has to be encouraged by the early returns from its new look offensive line. If the group follows the Tennessee game with another strong performance, they're going to make their head coach look very smart.
The last sentence makes reference to McCarthy's proclamation that the 2014 offensive line could be the best of his Green Bay tenure. It's still too early to make that determination, but the unit certainly looks improved.
Against the Rams highly touted defensive line, center JC Tretter held his own. With top pick Aaron Donald lined up primarily over his shoulder, Tretter anchored well on all 13 pass plays with only one bad run in the ground game. Add in the fact that he also capably handled the Packers' no-huddle offense, and the Rams game stands as Tretter's finest achievement to date. It won't always be this easy for the second-year lineman, but Tretter possesses the tools to become one of the league's better centers.
The rest of the offensive line was similarly impressive. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang provided their usual solid performances in pass protection and opening holes in the running game. Bryan Bulaga demonstrated once again that he's recovered from last summer's torn ACL. The only black mark for the group was a hands-to-the-face penalty against David Bakhtiari that wiped out a Jordy Nelson touchdown. Beyond that, it was smooth sailing for the offensive line. Aaron Rodgers enjoyed many long lasting, clean pockets, some as preposterous as this four-second window on the final play of the first quarter:
If pressed to find negatives, the backup linemen continue to flounder. In particular, Derek Sherrod seemed to regress from the form he displayed against Tennessee. However, if given the chance to play next to Sitton or Lang, it's hard to envision Sherrod struggling as much as he did Saturday.
Jeff Janis is taking advantage of the other wide receivers' mistakes
With the Packers restocking their receiving corps through the draft this summer, many observed that cut downs would be especially difficult for that position. In addition to Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Jarrett Boykin at the top of the depth chart, Green Bay added Davante Adams on Day 2 of the draft and Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis on Day 3. Adams' draft status and steadily improving preseason performance (punt return notwithstanding) secures him a roster spot.
While at one point the Packers appeared poised to keep six receivers, Abbrederis' injury has seemingly adjusted that figure to five. As such, the competition for the final unclaimed spot on the receiver depth chart has been expectedly fierce.
At times it didn't seem like Jeff Janis would factor much into that equation. A Division II prospect from Saginaw Valley State, Janis lacked the refinement of his competitors. A bout with shingles only further removed him from the consideration.
Yet despite so many chances to bury Janis on the depth chart, the other fringe receivers continuously failed to take advantage. Chris Harper displayed plenty of flashes but equally as many drops. Kevin Dorsey hasn't made quite as many mistakes, though that's somewhat negated by the lack of highlight plays. And while Myles White looks sturdier with the muscle he added over the offseason, he's muffed too many punts in practice.
Since returning from illness just over a week ago, Janis has made nearly one big play a day. That habit appears to have translated from practice; the receiver taking a short pass over the middle and exploding for 34 total yards and a touchdown during the second half of the Packers' second preseason game.
One play doesn't a roster berth make, but Janis has a trump card: punt returns. Abbrederis' torn ACL left Green Bay scrambling to find a viable punt returner to spare Randall Cobb and Micah Hyde. Experiments with Adams and other backups haven't gone well, but the coaching staff seems prepared to try Janis out over the next two weeks. If he succeeds, it's all but a guarantee he'll be the final receiver kept on cut down day.
The whispers of Julius Peppers' demise may have been premature
Julius Peppers' quiet Green Bay debut gave rise to some questions about his efficacy as an edge rusher in Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. Unlike in years prior where Peppers would rush the passer from a three-point stance, the 13-year vet was being asked to shuffle between linebacker and what the team calls the "elephant end" position.
Those concerns aren't completely unfounded, but Peppers silenced a lot of critics with his play against the Rams. In just two series, Peppers managed a tackle for loss and a hit on the quarterback. While impressive, it hardly depicts the quality of his performance. Through swim moves, bull rushes, and snap anticipation, Peppers regularly found himself in the backfield. He beat a multiple linemen to get there, as the Packers lined him up on the right and the left, as a linebacker and as a down lineman.
Such is a small sampling of the way Capers plans to utilize Peppers come the regular season. One of the Packers' aims this offseason was to become more multiple on defense. Employing a 6-7, 287 lbs. player who can bring edge pressure in a variety of ways from a number of different positions allows for the team to use Clay Matthews more creatively.
Just as one preseason game wasn't enough to write off Peppers, neither does a single preseason game prove he's still a dominant player. It's clear he can still pressure the quarterback, but at age 34 the more important question is whether he can maintain a high level of play for a full season. Even the freakiest athletes lose the war against father time. The Packers won't know whether they've made a smart investment until much later in the season.