It’s easy to gravitate towards the flashy skill positions; wide receivers and running backs, cornerbacks and safeties. Every team needs freak athletes at the skill positions that create game breaking plays. But if you ask any NFL pundit or even a tuned-in fan, they’ll tell you that the best team’s strengths start at the line of scrimmage. Want your defense to create more interceptions and pass break-ups? Get to the quarterback. Want your offense to move the ball down the field with ease? Neutralize the pass rush. If the Packers expect to win the Super Bowl, they must win in the trenches.
Winning in the trenches. Is it a tired trope? Maybe. But you don’t have to look any further than the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers to see how critical it is to overpower your opponent up front.
The regular season meeting between the Packers and Bucs was ugly, primarily because the Bucs pass rush eviscerated the Packers offensive line and never once let Aaron Rodgers and his offense get comfortable.
It was more of the same on defense where the Bucs o-line manhandled the Packers upfront en route to a 23-113-2 rushing line for Ronald Jones, and allowed the statuesque Tom Brady plentiful time to find receivers.
Obviously, the 2020 NFC championship game rematch (minus All-Pro David Bakhtiari) with the Buccaneers further drove home the point that the team from Tampa Bay featured superior talent (or willpower) on the offensive and defensive lines.
The Packers were outmatched in the two aforementioned games, but they are not without their own talent along the respective lines. The question is can those units coalesce this season to put the Packers over the top.
Defensive Line / Front Seven
The best cornerbacks in the NFL can only cover their man for four seconds, this includes the otherworldly Jaire Alexander. Without a strong push upfront it doesn’t matter what kind of archipelago you’re named after, you will get beaten.
The Packers will need strong performances from their defensive front if they wish to surpass last years results. Kenny Clark and Za’Darius Smith are studs who need to maintain their blue chip status (and health in the case of Smith, who is currently questionable for week 1).
The lesser of the Smith Bros., Preston Smith is back for probably the last year of his tenure in Green Bay. Thankfully it’s 2021, because Preston only shows out during odd numbered years. Evidenced by his 12 sacks in ‘19, 8 in ‘17, and 8 in ‘15 versus 4, 4, and 4.5 sacks in the ‘20, ‘18 and ‘16 seasons respectively. Any improvement upon Smith’s 2020 campaign will help the Packers defense considerably.
In the second half of the 2020 season Rashan Gary flashed some of the pedigree that enticed the Packers to spend the #12 overall pick on him in the 2019 draft. There might not be a player on the Packers roster that the expectations are higher for than Gary. He could single-handedly put this Packers defensive front over the top if he can further make good on his freakish combination of first step quickness and power.
Rookie big man TJ Slaton will also likely have his niche along the d-line, filling a role that many fans have felt was overlooked since nearly the days of Ryan Pickett. Slaton should be able to spell Kenny Clark in some packages as a true Nose Tackle, and in other packages line up next to Clark to eat blockers and free up the more nimble defensive tackle to provide critical interior pass rush. If the preseason is any indicator (it rarely is), Slaton may also be able to offer some pass rush of his own up front.
Aaron Rodgers will go down as one of the greatest to ever play the quarterback position, but he will be the first to say that stellar offensive line play over the years has allowed him to fully weaponize his god given talents.
The o-line of the Packers has been a well-known strength for many seasons. Part of the reason for that has been the draft capital (and talent evaluation) invested by the Packers front office. Seemingly every offseason there are a few new offensive line additions thrown into the mix, and usually the mix yields a recipe for success. 2021 is no exception.
In comparison to the defensive line, the o-line doesn’t need to improve so much as it does stay healthy and not wilt in the face of adversity. The Packers have a propensity to come out flat in the biggest moments, and the offensive line has not been immune to this.
The health of the o-line is certainly the most concerning, as longtime anchor David Bakhtiari is still
working his way back from an ACL tear and likely to miss at least a week or two to begin the regular season.
The trenches aren’t for the faint of heart, and various dings and bruises are to be expected throughout the season but serious injury avoidance is critical.
Luckily the Packers have breadth and depth along the offensive line, led by third year man Elgton Jenkins who can play literally every offensive line position at an above average level.
Josh Meyers, Royce Newman, Jon Runyan Jr., Ben Braden and former Tennessee Titans right tackle Dennis Kelly – all new or relatively new names to the Packers o-line room.
The x-factor for this unit is who from the new blood will emerge to take a starting position by the throat or will a returning veteran like Lucas Patrick or Billy Turner take another step from good to great? How about both!
Things Can Click In 2021
The Packers have the raw materials on both sides of the ball to win in the trenches. Sometimes all it takes is another year in a system, a little more confidence or a fear for one’s job for things to click.
Sometimes there is an intangible quality to when or why things improve; sometimes they just do.
One thing that’s for certain is in 2021 the Packers need to be stronger at the point of attack on both sides of the ball if they hope to bring home the Lombardi trophy to Titletown once more.
You can follow Adam on twitter at @adamjcarlson28.