Tag Archives: James Starks

Cedric Benson… Yep, Cedric Benson

By now, you know that the Packers added former Bears first-round bust, Cedric Benson. With his hand somewhat forced by Starks’ latest injury, TT felt that he could “never have enough horses” and added the veteran to the stable of young backs. Many around Packers nation are wondering why Benson over former Packer, Ryan Grant. Frankly, the question should be, why even bother with Benson in the first place?

The reason why I am skeptical about Benson is that I simply do not see him as a good fit for the Packers’ system. The Packers offense obviously runs through Rodgers. The backs are asked to (1) pick-up the blitz, (2) get the yards that are available, and (3)  be adept at catching the ball out of the backfield. Focusing on the latter two, it is clear that Benson is a curious fit.

Although Benson has surpassed the 1,000 milestone the last three seasons, he’s accomplished this averaging 20 carries per game, resulting in under 4 yards per carry. To put this in perspective, here’s a list of notable runners that averaged less than 4 yards per carry last season: Peyton Hillis, Brandon Jacobs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Michael Bush. Bush and Benson were the only backs last year to receive 200+ carries and average less than 4-yards per carry. Additionally, Benson has a career “long” carry of 46 yards. Essentially, Benson is the modern-day Leroy Hoard, who famously said: “if you need 1 yard, I’ll get you 3 yards. If you need 5 yards, I’ll get you 3 yards.”

Benson is best fitted for running between the tackles. There is hope that this attribute can result in Benson becoming the “closer” to ice close games. But, I’m not sure this closer role is merited. After all, he has 12 fumbles in the last two seasons. More to the point, though, is Benson’s fit in the Packers’ scheme. Something that has gone overlooked is that Benson comes from a smash-mouth team. The Packers, on the other hand, still have zone blocking principles in the run game. In a zone blocking scheme, the back is asked to stretch the field until he finds the hole, and then get into it and beyond before that hole closes. Successful running backs in zone schemes are built like Terrell Davis (sorry to bring his name up), not bulky and lumbering like Benson.

Benson is also not known for his hands out of the backfield. Over his career, he averages 6.9 yards per catch, with only 1 receiving touchdown. Outside of one 79-yard reception, his next longest reception is 24 yards. And he averages fewer than 2 catches a game. In such a pass-heavy offense, this becomes a liability. With Benson on the field, defenses likely will be able to narrow the play selection by ruling out screen passes and stretch runs.

The right fit for the Packers offense is James Starks, circa 2011 playoffs. He was perfect in that he got the yardage that was available and, as a bonus, he even made a few people miss. He was reliable enough in pass protection and he caught the ball out of the backfield well. For example, in the Super Bowl, Starks ran for a modest 52 yards, but did so on 11 carries. Even this little production kept the defense honest enough to allow Rodgers to utilize the play-action with a high degree of success. When Starks was offering this, the offense was clicking.

Unfortunately, Starks has been unreliable since that Super Bowl performance. And with his recent injury and Alex Green on a snap-count following last season’s knee injury, the Packers hand may have been forced in adding Benson. Thankfully for Packers fans, today’s NFL does not require a strong rushing attack in order to get to the Super Bowl. Just take a look at this list of starting Super Bowl running backs: Ahmad Bradshaw, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Pierre Thomas, Joseph Addai, Willie Parker, Tim Hightower, Brandon Jacobs, Laurence Maroney, Thomas Jones, and Cedric Benson. Yep, Cedric Benson.

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Packers’ Training Camp Primer

In his pre-training camp presser, Mike McCarthy made it clear that he was displeased with his team’s focus leading up to camp. He even went as far as saying some players were taking it for granted. But, with one swift personnel decision – cutting Charlie Peprah – he made a loud statement that should get everyone’s attention: each player must earn their spot on this roster. Peprah, a starter (albeit by default) for the last two seasons, was cut the day before camp opens, despite the fact there is no clear cut starter opposite Morgan Burnett. The Packers go to camp with an M.D. Jennings – an undrafted free agent a year ago – and Jerron McMillian – a rookie fourth-round selection out of the national powerhouse of Maine.

The battle between M.D. and McMillian (and perhaps Woodson) is just one of several intriguing story lines to watch during training camp. Here’s a look at several other position battles and players development worth watching.

Offense –

Yes. I know. Our offense was about as good as it gets last year. But, there’s still plenty of things to watch over the next 1-month-plus. I think the most important thing to watch for is the continued (hopefully) development of LT Marshall Newhouse. A fifth-round selection two drafts ago has ascended to the starting LT spot after an up-and-down season last year. He has prototypical size and length, and the requisite quickness to man the position. As expected though,  as a first-year starter, he had his fair share of growing pains. He, by far, gave up the most sacks among offensive linemen with 11.5. But the constant refrain from the coaching staff about Newhouse has always been that he is smart and never gets beat by the same move twice. And to that point, Newhouse need only look at fellow tackle, Bryan Bulaga, who similarly suffered through a rough first year starting, only to bounce back with a near-Pro Bowl year last season. They say the biggest jump occurs between the first and second season. It would be a coupe for the Packers to find their LT of the future in Newhouse to pair with Bulaga going forward.

Staying with the player development theme, I can’t wait to see how Randall Cobb progresses in year two. He immediately became a household name in Packers country after the first game when he returned a kickoff 100+ yards, which included an unreal act of balance mid-run, and he also took a quick dump-off to the house for a 30+ yard TD. Unfortunately for him, he set the bar awfully high going forward. As much as the Packers offense has to offer, Cobb has a unique blend of speed and athleticism. He needs to be on the field more. To do so, though, he needs to refine his route-running and become reliable. If he does, he should get more looks than both Jones and Driver.

An under-the-radar player to watch is D.J. Williams. Williams was a highly-regarded fifth-round selection a year ago. A John Mackey award winner. But, he looked far from the nation’s top tight end in his rookie season. He simply did not pass the eye test whenever he saw the field. He is short and not particularly a blazer either. And, to top it off, he lost the trust of the offense when he lined up wrong in the Week 7 matchup against the Vikes. This gaffe necessitated A-Rodg calling a timeout. He rarely saw the playing field after that moment. Still, the Packers need him to take that second-year leap. With Quarles most likely starting the season on the PUP list, the backup TE position is wide open. Both Crabtree and Ryan Taylor are assets to the team in other ways than catching the ball. Given the number of formations employed by McCarthy, which includes two tight end sets, Williams must show he belongs.

Of course, we will all be watching the running back position. Starks is the lead horse right now; but he must prove he can stay healthy for a season. Alex Green is coming off an ACL injury, but is needed to play a prominent role in spelling Starks and becoming a third-down type back. This battle will be written about more extensively in the coming weeks.

Defense –

Every player. Every position. That could very easily sum up what we are all looking forward to the most – a respectable defense. But there are a few players and battles worth our extra attention.

Lost in the excitement of the Packers drafting Worthy and Daniels, and signing Hargrove, Merling, and Muir, is last year’s darling to replace Cullen Jenkins – Mike Neal. A second-round selection in 2010, Neal flashed promise his first season before going down with a season-ending injury. Last season, he was hampered with a nagging injury that some say was a major reason for his limited production. He undoubtedly has talent if he can get past the injury bug. Of course I’m excited to see the fresh faces and what they can offer; but I’m not ready to give up on Neal quite yet. Unfortunately, any strides he makes during training camp will be tempered while he serves a 4-game suspension.

A.J. Hawk demonstrates every fans reaction when he makes a “play.”

My favorite training camp battle is A.J. Hawk vs. D.J. Smith. As much as the coaches sugar-coat Hawk’s play and value to the team, they cannot mask the fact he is an average, at best, middle linebacker. He creates no turnovers, gets swallowed up by linemen in the run-game, and when he does make a tackle, its five-yards down the field. Heck, even at a charity golf event, Hawk can’t wrap-up! Enter D.J. Smith. Undersized and under-appreciated coming out of Appalachian St., Smith has done nothing but make tackles his entire career at all levels – and not simply the five-yards-down-the-field variety either. In the limited action Smith got in place of an injured Hawk, Smith made his presence felt. In three starts, he had 27 tackles and 1 INT. Smith attacks the game, similar to how Bishop attacks it. And this was noticeable from his very first play from scrimmage (the first play of the video) when he subbed in for Hawk agains the Lions. When is the last time you saw Hawk diagnose the play, attack the line, shed a block, and make the tackle… wait for it… BEHIND the line of scrimmage?! But for the enormous contract Hawk somehow signed last offseason, Smith would figure to be the leader for the starting spot. It will be a very interesting battle to watch. And if Smith makes that second-year leap, the coaches will need to make the tough decision and bench (maybe even cut) Hawk.

Obviously, the whole secondary could be highlighted. The safety position is in flux, as mentioned at the outset. Tramon is still injured from the first game of last season. And we still have Jarrett Bush on our squad (although, I have slightly warmed to him after the way he played in Super Bowl XLV). But, two players that could be key for the Packers’ secondary success are Sam Shields and Davon House. Shields was a rockstar his first year after being undrafted out Miami. It can safely be said that, but for Shields’ emergence, the Packers don’t make it to Super Bowl XLV. His ability to line up one-on-one that season allowed Woodson to roam and wreak havoc. That emergence was about as surprising as his rapid decline last season. The loss of an offseason due to the lockout hurt no player more than Sam Shields. (You can also wonder whether his first-year success, culminated by the Super Bowl win and gaudy neck tattoo, got to his head and resulted in less-than-stellar offseason training.) Davon House, meanwhile, was hyped during training camp for his ability to track the ball and make a play on it. He suffered an injury midway through camp, and never returned to form. When he did see the field, he looked lost and not NFL-ready. By all accounts, though, he has taken advantage of the full offseason. With everyone’s eye on Casey Hayward, the second-round pick, as well as the other new faces on defense, House has slid under the radar. If he can return to form, he may be a critical piece to the Packers’ defense.

Check back here in the coming weeks for a further breakdown of what is necessary from our defense in order to get back to the promised land. Clearly, the worst statistical defense won’t get the job done. So, what will? That talker, and more, to come. But for now, we can all rejoice in the fact that football season is finally here!

Why Packers Fans Should Care About Vegas Odds

Packers are the favorites again. But, a 12-win season is a challenge for any team – even an Aaron Rodgers led team

Proving once again the NFL season never ends, Vegas released the over/under victories lines for the 2012 NFL regular season. Predictably, the Packers lead the pack (terrible, unintentional pun turned intentional after I caught it) with the over/under on the 2012 season set at 12 (same as The Hoodies). Easy money, right? After all, this is the same offense that set all kinds of records last season, but now should have a much better defense after the infuse of talent via the draft.  But, there’s a few things you need to consider before putting down your next mortgage payment on the over.

1. History

If you don’t learn anything from history, you are condemned to repeat it. History repeats itself, and the numbers aren’t favorable to a repeat of last season. To begin with, remember that the Packers just won 15 games, but set a franchise record in doing so. Prior to last season, the Packers had won 13 games only four times in franchise history, including repeating this effort in 1996 and 1997. Never a 14-win season. In order to win the over-bet, the Packers would have to do something that has only been done once before in franchise history – back-to-back 13+ win seasons.

Admittedly, franchise records are more illustrative than instructive. After all, the Dan Devine and Lindy Infante years are included. But, league history is also not favorable. Since 1990, there have been only 46 teams that went 13-3 or better. Of those 46 teams, only five had faired better than 12 wins in the prior seasons, with another five teams winning 12 games in the prior season. Why do you ask? Simple – parity.

2. League Parity

As the saying goes: Any given Sunday. What makes the NFL the best pro sports league is that every team has a legitimate shot to win every week. Need I remind you that the seemingly invincible and undefeated Packers got embarrassed at Arrowhead last season? I also remember the eventual Super Bowl champs getting absolutely thrashed by the T-Jax led Seachickens 36-25 at home (I remember because this was my King of the Hill pick).

Since 2000, there have been 9 different Super Bowl winners and 16 different teams to play in the big game. On average, half the teams that make the playoffs fail to make the playoffs in the very next season. It is this parity and unpredictability that make 13-wins easier said than done, even for an Aaron Rodgers led squad.

3. Schedule

Also working against the 2012 Packers is the schedule. Because of its success last season, the Packers face a sterner test this season. The Packers play the defending Super Bowl champs on the road and three other division champs (SF, NO, and Houston). Packers also have a few trap games that will be harder games than they should: at Seattle – sandwiched between the Thursday night Bears game and hosting Who Dat nation – and hosting the Vikes – sandwiched between two Sunday night games at NYG and at home against the Motor City Kitties.

The Packers also play in one of the toughest, if not the toughest, divisions in the league. The Lions are THE up-and-coming young team primed to be perennial playoffs contenders. Da Bears should be much improved on offense now that Cutler got his favorite old target, Brandon Marshall, and spent a second-round pick on Alshon Jeffery, a beast WR from South Carolina. Da Bears are getting a little long in the tooth on defense, but they always play Rodgers tough. And the Vikings are, well, a rebuilding project. But as Ponder proved when they hosted the Pack last season, he’s not afraid to go right after Woodson & Co. Sweeping the division again will be a tough feet for the Packers to duplicate in 2012.

4. Flukes, Injuries, and the Unexpected

Finally, there is always the unpredictable. The Packers have great depth at numerous spots on the roster; but, as the case with most teams, there are a few positions thin in depth. A few injuries along the offensive line like last season – think Sitton, Bulaga, Saturday – would result in continued line shuffling and likely inconsistent play. The Packers are banking on James Starks and Alex Green shouldering the load at running back, but both players are coming off injuries. And, the obvious, an injury to key players like Rodgers, Clay, Woodson, etc. would be absolutely crushing.

Beyond just injuries, though, are the flukes that occur throughout the season. A perfect example of this is the UW Badgers 2011 season. But for a hail mary and another long completion under a minute left, the Badgers would have been playing in the BCS Championship Game (assuming the SEC bias wouldn’t have still prevailed). It’s a long season and crazy things can happen. And even an easy mid-season stretch like St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Arizona could result in players taking the games a little easier, making the Packers vulnerable.

The bottom line is that it is hard to back-up a franchise-best season with another stellar season. 13+ wins is tough to accomplish in today’s NFL. I’d like to think that the over-play should be the right play. But, as you can see, it will be quite the accomplishment if they do. And even if they don’t, an 11- or 12-win season is just fine too; because all that matters is ending with a win!