Amidst nearly Super Bowl-esque fanfare, professional football returns to faithful fans starved for gridiron action with the annual Thursday Night Football celebration. The champion Seattle Seahawks and their 12th Man will try to prevail over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers without benefit of what could kindly be termed "disputed" officiating. Pull out those jerseys, buy some avocados and find the takeout menus--it's time!
The National Football League may be billing this game as the rematch of the "Fail Mary" replacement referee debacle, but true pigskin lovers know it's an eagerly anticipated battle of mercurial offense versus terrifying defense. The Seahawks lost a few of their ferocious defenders and Green Bay discovered something called "the running game," so the stage is set to give Aaron Rodgers and company a fighting chance.
The Packers. Nothing like losing a Peyton Manning or a Rodgers to shake up a team's front office. Ironically, the quarterback's broken clavicle last November may have set up another Packers Super Bowl run in 2014. Aside from RB Eddie Lacy, 2013's Rookie of the Year, there was virtually no offense after Rodgers went down. And that fact seemed to finally light a fire under general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy. As reported by the fly on the wall, the conversation was brief and pointed: "Gee, think we'd better beef up the defense and get serious about an offensive line?" Whether that epiphany translates to stronger trenches play has yet to be decided.
Enter Julius Peppers, stolen from archrival Chicago. Even though chronologically and occasionally motivationally challenged, Peppers can still dump an opposing signal caller in convincing fashion. On the other hand, outstanding NT B.J. Raji is out for the year due to injury. That'll leave a hole--a big one. Currently attempting a super-sized Hans Brinker impression will be undrafted rookie DT Mike Pennel, with second-year DE Josh Boyd working in reserve. This would be a slot for former Viking Letroy Guion, but the transplant hasn't been healthy. The D-line is frighteningly thin--in terms of depth. Not, you know...
The cornerbacks should play well now that Casey Hayward is back from his 2013 injury, but the unit needs to work on that whole ball-catching thing since they managed few interceptions last season. Safety was an area of concern, so the Pack moved CB Micah Hyde to safety and drafted rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix out of Alabama in the first round. Before you ask--since he is undoubtedly sick of telling the story--the DB's name is Ha'Sean but his grandmother cut to the chase with "Ha Ha" to avoid inevitable pronunciation issues. Whether she improved or worsened the moniker is debatable, but "Ha Ha" he's been since toddlerhood.
Although tremendous OLB Clay Matthews is back on the field after nagging thumb problems, the interior linebacking group could be better and could require some depth chart adjustments if the two returning starters can't perform as needed.
The offensive line is now filled with home-drafted product, so we'll see whether Thompson and McCarthy are worth the accolades fans seem intent upon awarding them. One has doubts as long as Mike McCarthy can't seem to help himself when it comes to requiring Rodgers to survive constant attacks while simultaneously leading the NFL in QB rating. That Rodgers has frequently accomplished this feat only encourages the Green Bay coach.
Running back is (in a revolutionary new concept) a position of strength with Lacy leading the "pack." If McCarthy can be counted upon to utilize his trio of rushers, No. 12 could have a dominating season. With all of the respect due to reigning Kings Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Grand Arch Duke Drew Bress, Rodgers is the best quarterback currently zipping the prolate spheroid.
Constant Injury History: Green Bay seems to constantly be one of the least healthy teams in the league. And it can't all be the weather, Mike.Young Players to Watch:
- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may be groomed as the nickel back. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has compared the young DB to Carolina Panthers' legend Mike Minter, so stay tuned.
- DE Mike Daniels, drafted in the fourth round in 2012, showed significant potential last season and should see much more playing time in 2014.
- Datone Jones is now a starter at DE in his second year out of UCLA.
- Rookie Mike Pennel and second-year DT Josh Boyd will be in the rotation as Green Bay tries to forge a new franchise NT.
- Jayrone Elliot, another undrafted free agent gem, will back up the D-line. He had five sacks in the pre-season. Yeah, that'll get you on the roster, even if it will be mostly on special teams.
- 2013 draft pick David Bakhtiari dedicated himself to becoming stronger last off-season and is the undisputed starter at left tackle. See above on the importance of Aaron Rodgers' health. No pressure, kid.
- Rookie center Corey Linsley (from Ohio State) is pressed into duty now that second-year J.C. Tretter (Cornell) is hurt. Fifth-rounder Linsley came into camp so humble that he took the time to befriend a local boy whose mother is ill. So, if character counts in blocks, Linsley could be fine.
- Rookie Richard Rodgers is making a bid to be the next big thing at TE for fellow California alum QB. He has done well in the receiving area, but could work on his blocking. Rodgers the younger worked his way steadily up the depth chart since arriving in camp and has shown flashes of "playmaker" ability.
- WR Davante Adams, in his inaugural season out of Fresno State, will play behind Randall Cobb and continue to work on his return game. He improved each week of the pre-season, although he dropped several punts. He could eventually be in the running for the No. 3 spot. Third-year WR Jarrett Boykin currently holds that slot, after a huge growth season in 2013. If Adams proves up to it, the four-wideout set may return to the frozen tundra.
- Jeff Janis (from little Saginaw Valley State) made the team as a return specialist. Boykin was undrafted and Janis squeaked into the seventh round, so the "little guys" are getting a WR-ing shot after the recent loss of both Greg Jennings and James Jones. At the NFL Combine, Janis managed to score in the top 8% in the cone drill, the top 6% in the shuttle and the top 5% in the 10-yard dash. Apparently he's quick.
The Seahawks. Are the Seahawks so tough because of excessive practice pounding? For the second time in three years, coach Pete Carroll and the team have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for incorporating far more contact into their off-season than is contractually allowed. Perhaps owner Paul Allen needs to explain the "rules" concept to Carroll, who has historically shown apparent comprehension (and possibly ethical) difficulty with this principle.
Nevertheless, the level of talent on the filed, the sidelines and in the front office has essentially guaranteed a successful franchise for the foreseeable future. Stealing QB Russell Wilson (the best deal at the position since Tom Brady) in the third round of the 2012 draft has allowed Seattle to extend contracts for multiple team stars. In fact, this group has such depth that there is only one starting rookie and one second-string rookie on both the offensive and defensive depth charts. Their very own football-toting battleship, Marshawn Lynch, hardly took a pre-season snap.
Young Mr. Wilson is the primary beneficiary of the depth at running back. This offensive balance will allow the 25-going-on-40-year-old signal caller to build on an already impressive set of skills that includes intelligence, character, leadership, scrambling ability, staying healthy ability and a vastly under-rated ability to throw the prolate spheroid. Honestly, he's a Peyton Manning/Steve Young hybrid. On and off the field. Every team not helmed by someone named Manning, Brady, Rodgers, Brees or Luck is kicking themselves on a weekly basis. Spectacular WR Percy Harvin starts the season healthy--and deadly.
The 'Hawks No. 1 defense lost two members of their secondary and some linemen, Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith is recovering from off-season ankle surgery (though he looked just fine with a "pick-six" in the late pre-season) and MLB Bobby Wagner has been nursing an injury. Should Wagner be unable to play, the linebacking corps will shuffle starters, with depth provided by rookie Brock Croyle.
Pre-season shouldn't be time for panic, but the Seattle D was positively anemic in the last pre-season game against the Raiders--even when there were some starters in the game. Yes, the Raiders. However, this squad boasts several legitimate superstars (Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas) and Carroll is a gifted defensive coach, so there should be no reason for undue concern in the Emerald City.
However, Seattle fans need to hold their breath every time premiere safety Earl Thomas goes back on a punt or Percy Harvin sets for a kickoff return. What? Out of seven WR's and multiple DB's and RB's, you couldn't find a non-anchor of your team to put at risk in the all-out madness of special teams returns? Harvin may simply be too talented in this role not to take the gamble, but what's the excuse for an All-Pro safety? And in the event that Thomas is injured, Carroll evidently plans to turn to another relatively unimportant DB--Richard Sherman! And that's cause for concern.Young Players to Watch:
- WR Ricardo Lockette is a roster success story from so far out of nowhere that he went to college someplace called Fort Valley State. A former track athlete, Lockette has worked his way up from undrafted free agent in 2011, to the practice squads of Chicago and Seattle, to backing up Doug Baldwin at LWR. If he's going to pop, it will be this year.
- Fourth-rounder Kevin Norwood made the team by virtue of his knack for catching the ball in a crowd and getting decisively down the field. He had foot surgery in August, so his playing time may be a gradual process.
- Second-round pick Justin Britt is now the starting right tackle, displacing veteran Eric Winston. The former Missouri lineman is 6'6" and 325 lbs. Can't you see O-line coach Tom Cable smiling?
- J.R. Sweezy, second-year offensive lineman from North Carolina State, is making a name for himself at RG after starting life as a defensive tackle. See him in the dictionary under "versatility."
- The aforementioned LB Brock Croyle led the team in tackles this pre-season and should be seen early on special teams.
- Second-round rookie WR Paul Richardson is very, very fast and should threaten to move up the depth chart as the year progresses.
- WR Jermaine Kearse, a 2012 undrafted free agent from the University of Washington, may surprise many a pigskin pundit in September as he launches a breakout season.
- Fourth-round linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis might have had a tough time competing on this defense, but injuries helped him arrive as a swing backup.
- GM John Schneider made a late trade for second-year CB Marcus Burley, originally signed by Jacksonville in 2013. Burley claims 5'10" (okay, if he says so) and is a fast slot alternative for a secondary that was soundly trounced by a rookie QB in the final pre-season contest.
Prediction: Every Packers win is one more chance that Green Bay won't be forced to re-visit Seattle in January--an event that the Seahawks would be more than happy to host. This game will hinge on the ability of Green Bay's offensive line to do something few units seem capable of accomplishing: keeping the Seattle pass-rushers from making life miserable for their franchise quarterback. Green Bay's young center will have the task of handling O-line calls, defensive reads, key blocks and Seattle's crowd noise in his NFL debut. Other than that, it'll be a walk in the field turf.
Tempting as it is to bank on top-flight defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, this could be Aaron Rodgers' year. As long as his legs hold out. Packers by two.