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Green Bay Packers 2011 Season Preview

The 2010 Green Bay Packers proved without any doubt that they're a team capable of overcoming adversity. The defending NFL champions will now be faced with a new challenge for this upcoming season, as they'll be attempting to change the course of recent history.

Since the New England Patriots hoisted back-to-back Lombardi Trophies in 2003 and 2004, none of the next six Super Bowl winners have advanced beyond the Divisional Round of the following year's playoffs. The last five teams that fall into that category all failed to win a single postseason game.

The 2011 Packers might just be able to buck that negative trend, however. Only three players (guard Daryn Colledge, defensive end Cullen Jenkins and running back Brandon Jackson) that qualify as major contributors to the group that downed the Pittsburgh Steelers in Dallas last February are no longer with the organization. And Green Bay earned its title the hard way, prevailing in three tough road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl and withstanding a rash of injuries at several key spots on the road to glory.

The Packers also have youth on their side, having sported the fifth-youngest roster in the league last season. The majority of the team's core members, including quarterback and Super Bowl XLV Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, wide receiver Greg Jennings, safety Nick Collins, nose tackle B.J. Raji and tight end Jermichael Finley, are all either in or about to enter their prime years.

Last year's accomplishments could have Green Bay feeling supremely confident about their chances for a repeat, though the players are well aware of the pitfalls that their predecessors weren't able to conquer.

"We understand we're viewed differently now that we've won that championship," said Rodgers. "We need to be the hunter in the situation, because we're going to be hunted. We realize it's important to do things better than we did last year."

As has been the custom during the reign of general manager Ted Thompson, Green Bay wasn't active in free agency, meaning the young products of a successful string of draft classes will be counted on to fill the voids left by this offseason's departures. The Packers should also be bolstered by the healthy return of several prominent players that were injured for the championship run, a list that contains such notables as Finley, two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant and second-year safety Morgan Burnett.

Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Green Bay Packers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2010 RECORD: 10-6 (2nd, NFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, defeated Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV

COACH (RECORD): Mike McCarthy (48-32 in five seasons)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Joe Philbin (fifth season)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dom Capers (third season with Packers)

OFFENSIVE STAR: Aaron Rodgers, QB (3922 passing yards, 28 TD, 11 INT)

DEFENSIVE STAR: Clay Matthews, OLB (60 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT)

2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 9th overall (24th rushing, 5th passing), 10th scoring (24.3 ppg)

2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 5th overall (18th rushing, 5th passing), 2nd scoring (15.0 ppg)

KEY ADDITIONS: RB Alex Green (3rd Round, Hawaii), WR Randall Cobb (2nd Round, Kentucky), OT Derek Sherrod (1st Round, Mississippi State)

KEY DEPARTURES: OG Daryn Colledge (to Cardinals), OT Mark Tauscher (released), DE Cullen Jenkins (to Eagles), ILB Nick Barnett (to Bills), RB Brandon Jackson (to Browns), FB Korey Hall (to Saints), TE Donald Lee (to Eagles), C Jason Spitz (to Jaguars), DE Justin Harrell (released), OLB Brady Poppinga (to Rams), OLB Diyral Briggs (released), ILB Brandon Chillar (released), ILB Matt Wilhelm (not tendered), S Atari Bigby (to Seahawks), S Derrick Martin (to Giants), S Anthony Smith (to Titans)

QB: Rodgers (3922 passing yards, 28 TD, 11 INT in 2010) vaulted himself from the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks to one of the game's exclusively elite at the position after following up an excellent 2010 regular season with a sensational playoffs that was capped by a near-flawless 304-yard, three- touchdown performance against a stout Pittsburgh defense in the Super Bowl. Expect Brett Favre's onetime understudy to continue that top-notch level of play into the foreseeable future, as he won't turn 28 until December and is entering only his fourth year as a starter. Backup Matt Flynn (497 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) showed he can run the offense efficiently with a strong showing at New England last December in place of an injured Rodgers, providing the team with a nice insurance policy should their star signal-caller miss any time. Head coach Mike McCarthy is also high on former Texas Tech standout Graham Harrell, and the record-setting collegian could wind up as Green Bay's future No. 2 if Flynn departs via free agency at season's end.

RB: Grant (45 rushing yards) rushed for a career-best 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Packers' lead runner in 2009, and is back to reprise that role after missing all but one game of last season due to a serious ankle injury. He'll have competition for the job, however, from youngster James Starks (101 rushing yards), who emerged as a playoff hero for the club after being used sparingly for much of his rookie campaign of 2010. With Jackson, Green Bay's best receiver out of the backfield, signing with Cleveland during the offseason, there's a need for a reliable pass catcher and blitz protector on third downs. Those duties could eventually go to rookie Alex Green, a powerfully-built third-round pick out of Hawaii who displayed good hands in the Rainbows' run and shoot offense, or possibly versatile fullback John Kuhn (281 rushing yards, 6 total TD), who had 15 catches last season in addition to serving as a lead blocker and occasional short-yardage specialist in the run game.

WR/TE: Rodgers will have an embarrassment of riches at his disposal for the upcoming season, as the Packers boast arguably the deepest collection of receivers in the league. The foursome of Jennings (76 receptions, 1265 yards, 12 TD), venerable vet Donald Driver (51 receptions, 4 TD), Jordy Nelson (45 receptions, 2 TD) and James Jones (50 receptions, 5 TD) each surpassed 500 receiving yards during the regular season, while the dynamic Finley (21 receptions, 1 TD) would have easily hit that mark if not for a torn ACL he suffered in Week 5. Jennings ranks as the field-stretcher of the bunch, as the 2010 Pro Bowl honoree has averaged over 16 yards per catch in each of the last four years, while Nelson came on strong at the end of last season, emerging as Rodgers' No. 2 target and breaking out for 140 yards and a touchdown on nine grabs in the Super Bowl. Driver, Green Bay's all-time leader in receptions, turned 36 in February but remains a trusted and effective option out of the slot. Thompson may have found the 12-year pro's heir apparent with the team's selection of rookie Randall Cobb in the second-round of April's draft, as the Kentucky product has displayed savvy route-running skills as well as impact potential on returns in camp and could provide yet another weapon to the league's fifth-ranked passing attack. Second-year man Andrew Quarless (21 receptions, 1 TD) looms as Finley's main backup, though he'll be pushed by D.J. Williams, an athletic fifth-round draft pick who was among the fastest tight ends at this year's combine.

OL: Green Bay's offensive line figures to have an interesting blend of youth and experience in 2011. Including the postseason, stalwart left tackle Chad Clifton has started 165 times in his 11 seasons with the Green and Gold, and fellow veteran Scott Wells has steadily manned the team's center spot since 2006. Clifton has rewarded with his second career Pro Bowl nod last season, while unheralded right guard Josh Sitton made a good case for all-star honors after grading out near the top of the league at his position. Thompson has invested heavily in this area in the draft in recent years, tabbing returning right tackle Bryan Bulaga in the first round of the 2010 edition and landing promising Mississippi State prospect Derek Sherrod with the 32nd overall choice this past April. Though the rookie is being groomed to be Clifton's eventual successor, he'll have a shot at immediate playing time due to Colledge's exodus to Arizona, with Sherrod competing with third-year pro T.J. Lang in the preseason to take over at left guard. The Packers also lost valued interior reserve Jason Spitz in free agency, with undrafted 2010 rookie Nick McDonald the top candidate to fill that vacancy.

DL: The Packers will be undergoing some change on the defensive line as well after Jenkins, whose seven sacks ranked second among Green Bay players in 2010, became part of Philadelphia's mass offseason free-agent splurge. The team does believe it has a capable replacement from within in 2010 second- rounder Mike Neal, who handled himself well in part-time duty as a rookie prior to landing on injured reserve with a shoulder problem. He'll benefit from the stout presence of Raji (39 tackles, 6.5 sacks), a dominant force during last year's postseason march who commands constant double teams. Veteran plugger Ryan Pickett (32 tackles, 1 sack), one of the few Packers over 30, is back for an 11th NFL campaign at left end, and the starters will all work in a rotation with holdovers Howard Green (8 tackles, 2 forced fumbles), C.J. Wilson (18 tackles, 1 sack) and Jarius Wynn (5 tackles, 1.5 sacks).

LB: This four-man unit may be the greatest area of concern for Green Bay, which at times had trouble finding a consistent pass-rushing complement to the relentless Matthews (60 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT) and lacks proven depth behind 2010 breakout performer Desmond Bishop (103 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) and A.J. Hawk (111 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT) at the two inside slots. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was able to squeeze out seven sacks from the combo of undrafted find Frank Zombo (38 tackles, 4 sacks) and late-year pickup Erik Walden (25 tackles, 4 sacks), both of whom are battling 2010 injury casualty Brad Jones (27 tackles) for the starting nod opposite Matthews, the runner-up to Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu in voting for last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. With the ranks thin on the inside, rookie D.J. Smith (6th Round, Appalachian State), a Sports Network FCS All-America selection in 2010, will have an opportunity to claim a roster spot as a reserve and special-teamer.

DB: With all the principal parts of a secondary that enabled Green Bay to lead the NFL in pass efficiency defense and rank second overall in interceptions (24) last season still intact, this is an obvious place of strength. Ageless cornerback Charles Woodson (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and free safety Nick Collins (70 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) each received All-Pro citations for their work in 2010, while Tramon Williams (57 tackles, 6 INT, 20 PD) quietly put together a terrific year opposite Woodson before stepping out of his more recognizable counterpart's shadow by picking off three passes in the postseason. Woodson turns 35 in October but is showing no signs of age, as the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year can still play the run like a safety and blitz like a linebacker while still supplying lockdown coverage. Capers has some impressive young parts to work with as well, with college free agent gem Sam Shields (29 tackles, 2 INT) immediately solidifying the nickel back spot as a rookie and Burnett (14 tackles, 1 INT) showing great promise at strong safety before tearing an ACL in the season's fourth game. There's also good depth in the backfield, with journeyman Charlie Peprah (63 tackles, 2 INT) holding his own as Burnett's replacement and versatile special-teams ace Jarrett Bush (13 teams) able to fill in at either cornerback or safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Green Bay didn't get much out of the return game during last year's title run, but will be hoping some of the rookies can provide an upgrade to that department. Cobb was an outstanding punt returner at Kentucky who's also ticketed for those responsibilities in the pros, while the team believes Green has the skills to make an impact taking back kicks. Second-year punter Tim Masthay, a former college teammate of Cobb, turned in a solid debut by averaging 43.9 yards per boot and placing 25 kicks inside the 20 last season, while strong-legged kicker Mason Crosby was re-signed in spite of hitting on a so-so 22-of-28 field goal attempts in 2010. Long snapper Brett Goode has been flawless in his three seasons with the Packers and was rewarded for that consistency with a two-year extension in January.

PROGNOSIS: With fellow contenders Philadelphia and Atlanta receiving most of the offseason accolades for their big splashes in free agency and the draft, Green Bay could be in a rare position of being somewhat overlooked in spite of last year's achievements. The Packers are no one-year wonder, however, as there's more than enough talent and depth on hand to make another title run, especially if players like Finley and Grant can regain the form they displayed prior to their injuries. As the plights of recent Super Bowl winners have shown, duplicating a championship is certainly no easy task. But with a top- notch quarterback and defense and a vast array of weapons at the skill positions, Green Bay seems to have the goods to make a repeat performance a very viable possibility.