If there's ever a time of year not to jump to conclusions, it's the preseason. In many ways, it's the twilight zone of football; the coaches appear relieved when the opposing team kicks a game-winning field goal to avoid overtime, camera crews pan to player interviews in the third quarter of a tightly-contested game, and stars chuckle at their lockers after blowout losses. A team can come away without scoring a single point and still feel as though it has achieved something. So when we hear about a player supposedly 'lighting up' the opposition, we're naturally wary. After all, it seems like just yesterday that Vic So'oto was going to be the next great Packers pass-rusher. One season, seven tackles and a sack later, the short-lived cult hero was on his way to Oakland. (So'oto, by the way, was recently cut by Pittsburgh.)
Sometimes, though, preseason performances can be an indicator of a diamond in the rough or a player ready to break out. With caution in mind, I considered conventional statistics, anecdotal evidence and Pro Football Focus' player evaluations through the first three weeks of the preseason. Here are my conclusions.
Caveat: Since the fourth preseason game doesn't feature the vast majority of key Packers players, I've only looked at PFF data through the first three weeks. If there is anecdotal evidence to add regarding the Week 4 performance, it will be noted.
The first-team defense has looked very good, albeit against less-than-stellar competition.
One of the most telling stats for a defense is yards-per-play allowed. Last year, Green Bay was 29th in that regard, surrendering a ghastly 5.9 yards per play. I took the box scores from the three games and only counted the yards gained by opponent's first-string unit versus our first-string unit. Then I divided that by the total number of plays. This year's first-stringers have allowed 4.74 yards per play. For context (which is vital), if the Packers had kept up this make over the entirety of last season, they would've been the third-best defense in the league in this stat, behind only Seattle and Cincinnati. It's easy to look at the negatives: the Shonn Greene touchdown run in the Nashville monsoon, the St. Louis scoring drive, the Maurice Jones-Drew touchdown run. But, although they aren't facing worldbeaters, the Packers' D has been about as good as it gets. (Bonus: the starters and backups combined have allowed 4.3 yards per play so far, second to only Indianapolis.)
If you'd prefer more conventional measures, Green Bay's entire defense is third in yards allowed per game, fifth in points against, and fourth in third-down percentage. The starters have allowed 5 third-down conversions in 14 attempts, which isn't amazing, but would've been good enough for 12th in the league last year (the Packers averaged an efficiency rate of 38.2% in 2013, which ranked 18th.) Zach Kruse over at Bleacher Report did further number-crunching and found that the starters allowed 20 points in 11 drives. Oh, and most impressively, they've allowed exactly three runs longer than five yards, and one came on a third-and-long.
Now to Pro Football Focus' numbers. The defense as a whole graded in at +14.3 overall, which is 8th in the league. Just counting the starters yields +10.3 overall, which is still an impressive number. If the preseason is any indication, this year's Packers defense is the best we've seen a while.
Don't Write Off The Inside Linebackers
The story on Brad Jones is this: flashes of promise hampered by injury from his entrance into the league until 2012, when Jones converted to inside linebacker. Phenomenal play as an injury fill-in for much of the 2012 campaign prompted a nice new contract, followed by a disappointing 2013 season in which Jones was hampered by injuries. Jones has the 13th-highest base salary of all inside linebackers, so anything less than a repeat of 2012 was going to signal disappointment. Jones appears to have regained his form, though, if the preseason is any indication; he's compiled a +4.7 grade overall and has a higher coverage grade than any other linebacker on the team (+1.0). Of his eight tackles, six were stops (in other words, they didn't result in a positive play for the offense.) His +3.9 in run D is also tops on the team by a wide margin. Don't start the Pro Bowl bandwagon rolling, but Jones could very well prove to be an asset to the Green Bay defense if he can remain healthy.
A.J. Hawk has been less impressive (an overall grade of -0.1) but his subpar grade is skewed by a horrid -1.6 mark in coverage. Hawk likely won't have to drop back too often if Jones keeps up his performance and regains his form as the dime linebacker, so Hawk's +1.4 in run D is encouraging. We've known for a long while that Hawk has reached his ceiling. I'd like to see Sam Barrington or Jamari Lattimore push for his spot, but Lattimore has been fairly quiet this preseason, so Hawk's solid showing is a good sign.
Pass-Rushing Platoon Offering Early Returns
When Julius Peppers was signed by the Packers this past spring, he wasn't brought in to play the number of snaps he had in Chicago. Regardless of his physical freakishness, Peppers is clearly not the dominant player he was for essentially his entire time in Carolina and for a while in the Windy City. He can, however, still be a dangerous pass-rusher if his snap count is limited. That's where Nick Perry and Mike Neal come in. Perry and Neal, both of whom have played below their draft status throughout their young careers, have combined for a +4.1 pass-rushing grade, generally coming against starters. Perry has been particularly impressive; his +3.7 total grade is fourth-highest on the team. Confirmation bias has led many to focus on Perry's bad plays (for example, a rush versus St. Louis where he ran the wrong way), but re-watching what few snaps he got in the Kansas City game, it's clear that he can get pressure. Rotate in preseason superstar Jayrone Elliott (an absurd +7.6 overall grade) with the three guys mentioned above and Green Bay looks like it finally has a suitable set of complements to Clay Matthews.
Raji's Injury Isn't Backbreaking, But It Hurts
In what has been an excellent preseason for the Packers, the injuries of JC Tretter (touched upon in the 'offense' section) and B.J. Raji have been two of the few dark spots. Raji had an awful 2013 season (a contract year, no less) but looked rejuvenated moving back to the nose. He posted a +0.8 overall grade during his preseason time, including +1.4 in run defense, which was second among the defensive linemen. The team will now depend on Josh Boyd (-1.4 overall, +0.2 run defense), Mike Pennel (+1.1 overall, +1.2 run defense) and Letroy Guion (only 9 snaps against Kansas City) to eat up space in the middle of the defense. The Packers don't play much base 3-4, so the Guion/Boyd/Pennel combination doesn't figure to be tested on a play-by-play basis, but we'll see if Boyd (who was not good versus Kansas City) and Guion (who was good in brief action versus Kansas City) step up. This will not make or break the defense, but it would definitely aid the cause in trying to become a better run-stopping unit.
Base DEs Growing Up
Last year, the Packers drafted Datone Jones in the first round, understanding that he might take a while to come along but naturally hoping for him to make an impact. The year before, they had drafted Mike Daniels, the stereotypical Packers pick: a mid-rounder and Midwestern defensive lineman whose motor made up for his limited measurables. It was Daniels who took offensive lines by storm in 2013, notching 6.5 sacks and rounding out as one of the league's top ten at his position (6th overall, 8th in Pass Rushing Productivity.) His dominance has carried over nicely into his 53 snaps this year; while he hasn't brought down the quarterback yet, his +1.8 as a rusher is tied for fourth-highest on the team (and is the best among the ends.) On the other side is Datone Jones, who has earned a healthy +0.5; while he has been an abysmal -1.8 when getting after the quarterback, his +2.0 versus the run is second on the team, behind only Brad Jones. Jones is still figuring out pass-rushing, but until he does, he's a solid complement to Daniels, who's clearly an ascending player.
The Safeties Are Ready To Roll
While the starting cornerbacks have not been good in preseason snaps (remember that as we take good preseason performances with a grain of salt, we should do the same with the bad), the safeties, who were the real Achilles' heel of the secondary last year, have been very good. When Micah Hyde started training camp with the first-team reps, some of us assumed that it was a tactic to make Ha Ha Clinton-Dix earn his inevitable starting spot. Clinton-Dix wasn't bad in camp by any means, which makes Hyde's fluid conversion to safety all the more impressive. Hyde and Morgan Burnett have racked up identical +1.3 coverage grades, and both have graded out positively overall. Neither has been a plus run-stuffer, but Clinton-Dix and training camp revelation Sean Richardson have helped in that matter, garnering a +1.0 and a +1.2 in that category, respectively. What all four starters have done, however, is show the willingness to hit the ballcarrier. That physicality should carry over well into the regular season.
No fear; Linsley is here?
When I heard Mike McCarthy describe JC Tretter's knee injury as "significant", I was prepared to assume that it was something near season-ending. Luckily, Tretter just has a small fracture and should be back in the early goings in the regular season. In his stead is fifth-round pick Corey Linsley out of Ohio State. This injury was particularly disappointing because Tretter was having himself a very nice preseason, grading out with a +2.5 in 78 snaps. His replacement happens to have been even better, with a +3.2, fifth-best in the league (Tretter was eighth-best.) Linsley has allowed a mere one pressure in 65 pass-blocking snaps, and his +3.5 in the run game was second in the NFL at the end of Week 3. Granted, he's taken all of his snaps versus second- and third-team players, but he's done everything the team really could have hoped for. While losing Tretter is a blow to the offense, Linsley should at least be a capable stopgap until Tretter's return, and he performed his duties as anchor of the O-line without a hitch against Kansas City. And if he plays lights-out, he might never look back. One scout told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he didn't think the Packers would miss a beat with Linsley in the lineup; it's time to find out if that's true.
Aaron Rodgers Is Ready
Yes, he was 9 for 20 versus Oakland, but a lot of those incompletions came on drops (which should be fixed without too much trouble; Boykin redeemed himself with a nice catch in Kansas City and Randall Cobb will get things sorted out). Rodgers has looked sharp in the preseason, with a quality +1.7 grade, and that's sure to skyrocket once the season gets underway. The no-huddle offense has been deadly, we'll get to see the offense unlocked on Thursday night versus Seattle, and the man who has become arguably the league's top quarterback won't have any rust to shake off (knock on wood).
Eddie Lacy Is... Well... Wow.
+3.3 by PFF's reckoning, but the raw numbers are even more impressive. (James Starks and especially DuJuan Harris look ready, too.) Neither St. Louis nor Oakland could do much to hold him in check, as he bounced for an absurd 5.6 YPC. Of course, he hasn't done his work alone...
The O-Line Is Likely Better
I've mentioned Linsley and Tretter already, but let's look at the rest of the lineup. The only starter with a negative grade right now is David Bakhtiari (-1.7), and his real struggles have come in the run game; he's allowed two pressures in 42 pass-blocking opportunities, which is pretty good. Bryan Bulaga has been a poor run-blocker thus far, too, but has been lights-out protecting the quarterback with a +2.5 in that aspect. The guards have both been positive run-blockers and pass-protectors, and T.J. Lang, usually considered the weaker one of the pair, has put together a +5.3 overall. If Bakhtiari and Bulaga can block better for Lacy (and it's not as if he's had much of an issue finding holes anyway), this offense could be a better group than its 2011 variant. Even in the status quo, it's offering Rodgers more time to throw than he's ever had before. That means more open receivers, like we saw with Andrew Quarless in the Rams game.
The Tight Ends are Flavor-of-the-Day
When Brandon Bostick returns from his minor (again, knock-on-wood) injury, things get even more interesting, but as it is, the Packers have some tough choices to make at the tight end position. They don't have a road-grading run blocker; their best performer in that facet so far has been Andrew Quarless, with a +0.4 mark. Yet all of their tight ends except for Quarless have graded out positively in the passing game. The best in the bunch have been Bostick (who will miss Week 1) and third-round pick Richard Rodgers. The pick of Rodgers was panned by the media (and many fans); Rodgers wasn't much of a blocker coming out of Cal as de facto wide receiver, and his awful combine seemed to dash his chances of being a Jermichael Finley-like field-stretching threat. What the young tight end has shown, however, is that he can catch the ball naturally. He's got a nice radius and isn't all that easy to bring down, plus he's been a reliable third-down target. He's been poor when it comes to blocking, though, so the Packers might not be comfortable penciling him into the starting lineup quite yet, instead opting to go with the veteran Quarless. It's hard to see Quarless holding off Bostick and Rodgers in the long term, though.
My surprise wish after looking at the stats and Pro Football Focus' breakdown of the final preseason game is for Jake Stoneburner to have replaced John Kuhn (which will of course be impossible since Stoneburner is on Injured Reserve and Kuhn remains on the active roster after final cuts). I say this with the greatest deal of respect for Shippensburg product (and cult hero) and my best attempt at understanding what it takes to make it in the NFL as a starting player, especially as a fullback, but Kuhn has been a raging dumpster fire during the preseason. Like we can only see the blown plays when we watch Nick Perry, we might be ignoring Kuhn's ineptitude. His -2.9 grade overall is the second-worst of all Packers offensive players (and tied for the fifth-worst of all players on the team), and the fact that he's got a -3.0 grade as a run-blocker should be worrisome. Stoneburner was highlighted by PFF as one of Green Bay's top performers from an excellent Week 4 performance, catching 3 of 4 targets for 34 yards and finishing with a +1.3 in run-blocking (playing some snaps as a fullback.) Putting Stoneburner in the backfield, though it probably won't happen this year, would do two things: it would replace the loved but aging warrior that is Kuhn, and it would offer a new receiving element. Shifting tight ends into the backfield with regularity would be a bright idea.
Flashes of Potential From The Young Receivers
Both Davante Adams and Jeff Janis have had their dark patches thus far. For Adams, it was a litany of drops and tepid preseason performances versus Tennessee and Oakland. For Janis, it was a bout of shingles, a complication which caused him to miss the early stages of training camp. But both have also shown why Ted Thompson thought of them as worthy of draft picks. Adams muffed a couple of punts versus Tennessee in a monsoon, and after another miscue versus St. Louis, the team decided to look elsewhere for a returner. Adams has made an impact in the receiving game, though, hauling in four catches, including a wide-open touchdown versus Kansas City, and also catching a two-point conversion versus St. Louis.
Janis made two receptions in the preseason, but both went for fairly long touchdowns, and both demonstrated his athletic ability. Versus St. Louis, Janis caught a quick pass across the middle and turned up the sideline, outrunning everyone to the end zone. Versus Kansas City, Scott Tolzien lofted a fourth-down pass into his outstretched arms and he took it in for the score. Neither seems to have developed any chemistry with Aaron Rodgers, but seeing that he has three proven receivers (and the mentioned capable pass-catchers at tight end), it's a relationship that can be built over the course of 2014 and beyond. Right now, though, there's not a reason to be down about either.
Odds and Ends
It's a pity Raijon Neal got hurt. He was looking pretty impressive prior to the injury, with a +1.5 overall and rush grade.
DuJuan Harris will be Green Bay's best backfield receiving option, with his +0.5 pass grade, and he looked explosive versus Oakland and Kansas City. Eddie Lacy has come a long way, though, with a +0.4 pass grade for the bruising back. He could be something else if he develops that second dimension.
If PFF had its way, Scott Tolzien would get the nod for the backup job over Matt Flynn, and it's not even close. +4.8 to -5.2. We'll see how Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson and the staff elect to handle things, though. Perhaps the team keeps two quarterbacks.
Derek Sherrod is back... kind of. He had a bad game versus St. Louis, but was good the rest of the way, with a +1.3 grade through three games. He hasn't shown much as a run-blocker, but can hold his own as a pass-protector.
The best receiver by PFF's measure has been Alex Gillett; he was one of two with a positive grade through Week 3. His tipped-to-self catch versus Oakland was something (the GIF is hypnotizing) and the former signal-caller understands what his quarterback is looking for. Perhaps he's done enough to convince Green Bay to keep six receivers.
Lane Taylor was the best non-starter pass-blocker through the first three weeks of the preseason, with a +1.5. He's a good backup, and when Tretter comes back, he, Sherrod and likely Linsley should offer some quality depth.
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That's what's on my mind as this preseason wraps up. As always, I'm optimistic, and I believe that Green Bay has as good a chance as anyone of knocking the Seahawks off the pedestal in their natural habitat. Most of what I've seen during the preseason confirms that, although, as I've reiterated throughout, it's just the preseason. Here's to a healthy and fruitful Packers season, hopefully beginning with a win at CenturyLink and ending with a victory at the Univeristy of Phoenix Stadium in February and the fifth Lombardi Trophy (and fourteenth championship!) Sound off below on your takes.