With the NFL draft behind us and a lockout raging on, the opportunities to talk about real football are becoming fewer and fewer. That being the case, I have sought out bloggers that cover teams that the Lions will play in the 2011 season to get a glimpse into what is going on with those teams.
Granted, this exercise presumes that no games will be lost due to the lockout. That might be a big step of faith, especially in regards to the preseason games, but I have a hard time operating under any other assumption. I know what happens when one assumes, let’s hope the labor situation doesn’t prove the old saying true. These Q&As aren’t meant to be any sort of game preview, it is obviously way too early for that. The subject teams may end up looking much different when the Lions play them compared to how they look now, but I anticipate this being a good introduction to each teams’ hopes, fears, needs, expectations, etc.
An odd schedule has the Lions playing their first game against the Packers after completing their season series with the Chicago Bears. The Lions and Packers will first play on Thanksgiving Day and will conclude the regular season with their game at Lambeau Field. I was able to send some questions to Ray Rivard, editor at Lombardi Ave, and he was kind enough to provide responses. Here we go…
Zac Snyder: What are your thoughts on the Packers draft?
Ray Rivard: Because the draft for the Packers is such a vital part of building the team, Ted Thompson, the Packers GM, has always done his homework on the players he selects. I feel this was again a superior draft for Thompson. Though he surprised many with his focus on loading his team with offensive players, I guess that’s what happens when you’ve got an coach who cut his teeth on the offensive side of the ball. I feel that the first round selection of Derek Sherrod, the left tackle and heir apparent of Chad Clifton was an excellent pick. While many were somewhat shocked the Packers didn’t trade up a few places and take Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi (the Bears got him), I still feel the Packers have a player in Sherrod who will no doubt contribute to the team for years to come. Probably the best pick of the draft for the Packers was second-rounder receiver Randall Cobb. Dubbed a Percey Harvin-style of pass catcher, Cobb brings a couple of new dimensions to the team: Someone who can contribute immediately as a kick returner and someone who can add more speed to a corps of receivers who already burn the track. My hope is that he has the toughness to catch passes over the middle. He will definitely be an added weapon to an already loaded arsenal. The Packers also added some depth at tight end, cornerback and even picked up a linebacker and defensive lineman in the later rounds. The only disappointment for many was that Thompson didn’t go out to find a true complement to Clay Matthews on the other side. That means the right player wasn’t available or Thompson was satisfied with the players he already has in the stable. We’ll see how that plays out.
ZS: How did Packer fans react to Aaron Rodgers making his way through the Madden cover vote? Any reservations about the “Madden curse”?
RR: I think Packers fans were pleased that Rodgers didn’t make the cover, not because of the jinx, but because Packers fans like to keep their own to themselves. Yes, the Packers are World Champs, but there is that quiet enthusiasm that many Packers fans have that comes off as a quiet confidence. Maybe you see it differently, but Sports Illustrated didn’t rank the Packers fans as the most knowledgeable on a whim. The Packers fans know going into every season that it’s going to be a dogfight, but they also know the Packers will be there with a chance at the end. They don’t need to boast their star players on Madden’s cover to know what they’ve got on the field.
ZS: Although the Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions, what is your biggest concern about the team going forward and what is being done to address that concern?
RR: A couple or three things concern me going forward: number one, the running game. It was nonexistent last year until it awoke in the playoffs. Ryan Grant has to come back with a vengeance and James Starks has to be a top notch backup … in fact, the two of them could be a tandem much like Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens were for the championship team in 1996; second, the defensive line … if the Packers lose Cullen Jenkins, they will have to reach deep into their reserves to find players to man the line. It will be interesting to see how that plays out; Third, special teams … While the team improved in that category, especially its punting, they need to improve much more to have chances to win the close games. Cobb will play into that improvement and signing Mason Crosby should be a priority of Thompson as soon as the free agency period begins.
ZS: To what extent do Packers fans see the other teams in the NFC North as a threat?
RR: Though the Bears won the division last year, I really think they were pretenders. Their defense is a year older and, I’m sorry, Jay Cutler is simply not the answer in Chicago. I see Cutler falling apart this year, being benched halfway through the season in favor of Caleb Hanie and Cutler being cut at year’s end. He’ll end his career as a backup in Buffalo or Arizona … I really feel the Lions have improved in so many places during the offseason that they could make a serious run at the division and the playoffs. They’ve got the defense and their offense is much improved. They will be tough, to say the least … especially at home. However, if the team has a deficiency, it’s their defensive backfield. That could be the team’s downfall … I still see the Packers winning the division, but the Lions will finish a solid second and will probably earn a wild card … they could make some noise in the playoffs, much like the Packers did last year.
ZS: What are your expectations for the Packers in 2011, repeat or bust?
RR: The pieces are in place to make another run at a championship, but it’s the luck factor that’s going to be the decider. They’ve got to have some breaks during the year and with so many players coming back off injury, they no doubt will make a serious run. I don’t think they will be a bust. There is just too much talent on the team for that to happen … and their schedule should help them along, too.
I expect to see a polished offensive team, another solid effort on the defensive side of the ball and a much improved look on special teams. I see the Packers at 12-4 this year, winning the division and possibly getting a first round bye … having at least one tournament game in Green Bay in January is a huge advantage.
So, OK … I say the Packers repeat. They will defeat the New York Jets in the Super Bowl … 28-23.