So, here we go…the strangest year we’ve ever lived through now brings us what will no doubt be the oddest NFL season, with fans in some stadiums but not others and the looming COVID threat always there to upend everything.
And here come the 2020 Packers, fresh off a 13-3 season, the near unanimous pick nationwide to regress to an eight or nine win team. I don’t see it.
Yes, the Pack was more fortunate than most in close games and they were pretty lucky in the injury department. They will not win 13 regular season games again. But if the injury bug doesn’t bite, I see ten wins, with an outside shot at 11.
Here’s what we know, first on offense. The team is in year two in the LaFleur system and things are bound to be easier this time around. Rodgers will be more comfortable and so will the skill position players. For me, the two biggest question areas are at right tackle (duh) and at tight end.
I don’t second guess the decision to move on from Bryan Bulaga. He was great when he was on the field, but at 30, with an injury history and a need to make the left tackle the highest paid in the game, Green Bay couldn’t spend the bucks. But there is a huge question mark there as we head into the Vikings game, with Billy Turner dealing with a knee injury (he returned to practice Thursday, limited) and the presumptive starter Ricky Wagner just back from an elbow injury–he missed a chunk of camp. One option floated about has Elgton Jenkins moving from LG to RT and putting Lucas Patrick in at guard, but that changes two spots along the line, without either guy getting any practice reps. I don’t see it except in an emergency.
Whoever plays there will not have to deal with the injured Danielle Hunter, but will likely see a lot of new pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. The return of Lane Taylor at right guard should be an upgrade from Turner last year, but there are obviously questions to be answered on that side of the line.
The other big question on offense is at tight end, where second year guy Jace Sternberger doesn’t appear ready to handle a heavy workload, opening the door for Robert Tonyan, who once again spent the offseason working out with buddy George Kittle. Maybe some of that talent rubbed off. I think Tonyan has a chance to take a big step forward this year. He’ll get the chance early.
I’m really interested to see how LaFleur uses Josiah Deguara and Tyler Ervin, two guys who figure to be on the field a lot. Ervin gives the offense a fun gadget piece, and a speed guy that’s desperately needed in this offense.
As for the wide receivers, the most tired story line is how the Packers gave Rodgers no help. Devin Funchess’ decision to opt out may have altered their plans had they known that, but this team is not going to run too many four receiver sets. They need three guys to give them production and I think between Lazard, MVS and ESB, there’s a good chance two of them take their games to the next level. The WR conversation won’t be talked about once we get into the season.
This is the deepest running back group the Pack has had in years. Aaron Jones, in a contract year, should pick up where he left off as a top ten back and rookie AJ Dillon is expected to, at some point, serve as a thinner to Jones’ lightning. And let’s not forget about Jamaal Williams, also in a contract year, who Rodgers has raved about this summer. It’s going to be very interesting to see how they all get used, but the Pack’s offensive identity is more and more a running team first.
Which brings us to Rodgers. Is he the same guy he was ten years ago? No. Is he still a top tier QB capable of winning every time he steps onto the field? Yes. And you know the chip that resided on his shoulder the night he was drafted has been replaced by the new one, representing the Pack’s decision to draft his presumptive replacement. I think his drive to show they’ll have to make a difficult decision at some point, plus his comfort in year two in the system will add up to a season that has him in the MVP conversation once again.
On to the defense, which took a major step forward last season with the arrival of the Smiths, along with Jaire Alexander’s strong second season and the big upgrade at safety.We all know they need to be much better against the run, and I’d hoped they’d address the defensive line in the offseason, to take some of the pressure off of Kenny Clark. Instead, we have to hope Lowry and Lancaster have bounce back seasons and that Kingsley Keke takes a big step forward in year two.
We hope to see that from Rashan Gary, too as he takes on a much bigger role. When he joins a front on passing downs with the Smiths and Clark? Let’s just say I see the Vikings struggling with that froup on Sunday.
The weakest link remains the inside linebacker group, where Christian Kirksey takes over for Blake Martinez. The former Browns captain has actually stayed healthy throughout camp and if he can stay on the field and make a big impact on that unit. He’s played for Pettine, he will call the signals and has already become a leader in the locker room. If he gets hurt? That would be a problem. Only Oren Burks and Ty Summers are behind him–Burks will likely start alongside him. I still think the team needs to add another body there.
This front seven will be tested big time by the Vikings running game. Dalvin Cook gained a lot of yards in his one game against the Pack and always seems to make two or three big plays. This defense has been gashed by explosive plays a lot the past couple of years–that needs to change.
Most believe the offense will be ahead of the defense at the start, because there’s been no hitting, no live tackling. That could be a problem on the quick track at US Bank Stadium.
The last time these teams met, late last season, the Pack owned both lines of scrimmage. This time around, I don’t see how Green Bay’s front seven doesn’t cause a lot of problems for the Vikes’ offensive line–especially up the middle. If the Vikes’ front seven struggles to contain Rodgers and the running game like it did last season, they’ll be hard pressed to win. And with no Linval Joseph and with free agent Michael Pierce opting out, they won’t be any stouter against the run this season.
It’s going to be surreal to watch a game in an empty stadium, with no real crowd noise. It will obviously curtail the home field advantage for all teams who have loud fan bases. I know I’ll really miss the Skol chant and the incessant horn blowing. It also takes away what’s been a huge advantage for the Vikes for years.
I think the Pack catch a break getting the Vikings in the opener. Their remade cornerback group will likely be a whole lot better after they get a few games under their belts. Look for Rodgers to test whichever rookie gets the slot: Gladney or Dantzler. The loss of their best defensive player is titanic and Ngakoue will need some time to adjust to putting his hand in the dirt, unless the arrival of Dom Capers signals some 3-4 groupings which will put him at OLB.
The Pack has had more continuity in the coaching department and in personnel and that’s a big advantage in this weird year. The Vikings will be better in November than they are now. The Pack needs to jump out to a quick start (3-1 would be nice) because their second quarter is brutal (at Tampa, at Houston, vs. Minn and at SF). This road game might be easier to steal than the one in New Orleans in a couple of weeks.
This is Border Battle #120 and Green Bay is 29-29 in Minnesota. It’s been over 600 days since the Pack has lost a division game. That streak will likely end at some point this season, but it’s not going to happen on Sunday.
Packers 23 Vikings 17
P.S. “Packer Preview” returns for a 25th season on the home of the Vikings, KFAN, this Sunday. The big news is that we are returning to 8am this year, since the Gopher football team is not playing this season–removing the need for a Gophers show at 8am. If/when the Big Ten returns, I’ll go back to 7am, but for now, you can listen at 8am (or whenever you wake up) on KFAN and iHeart Radio.