Skip to main content

Areas Of Improvement Clearly Defined


In his annual visits with the media at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Friday, Head Coach Mike McCarthy was asked specifically about what it will take for the playoff-qualifying Packers of 2009 to perhaps become Super Bowl contenders in 2010.

McCarthy's answer was long-winded, yet it clearly pointed to specific parts in each of his team's three phases that he's expecting to improve in the coming year - penalties and punting on special teams, sacks on offense, and facing spread attacks on defense. Here's a synopsis of each of those with comments from McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson, who also spoke with the media in Indianapolis on Friday.


McCarthy noted that the Packers led the league in penalties on special teams for the second straight year, but statistically what stood out to him about those penalties is that nearly half of them - 12 of the 30 - were committed by first-year players.

"I'm not just blaming this all on first-year players, but the statistics are what they are," McCarthy said. "It's something we need to look at from a training standpoint."

That training will be focused on more open-field blocking drills during practice, plus closer scrutiny of the drills by the practice referees. The Packers have officials at every practice who report to McCarthy any penalties committed, but generally they only watch the competitive scrimmage periods when the offense and defense go head-to-head, or when punts and kickoffs are done at live speed against a full scout team.

McCarthy said those officials would now track and report penalties in some of the specific drills, presumably to force players to mind their technique at all times.

"We're going to make an emphasis of it, and the players will respond," McCarthy said. "I expect us to be better in that area.

"That's the only way I know how to fix it. When you have a problem, you emphasize it and do more of it. That's our approach."

As for the punting, McCarthy said it wasn't what it needed to be last year. But Jeremy Kapinos (43.8-yard gross avg., 34.1 net) will be given the chance to keep his job while fighting competition from Tim Masthay and perhaps a draft pick or post-draft signee.

"There are some things he can do to improve physically," McCarthy said of Kapinos. "My understanding is he's gone about the process already. He's a young guy with an excellent opportunity and a year of experience, but he definitely needs to improve."

Specifically, McCarthy said he would like to see fewer touchbacks (Kapinos had 10), more punts inside the 20 (15 of 66) and a lower percentage being returned (40 of 66, 61 percent).

As for where Kapinos' competition will come from, the Packers are certainly studying the punters at the Combine, though it's never easy to predict whether a young punter will be drafted or signed as a rookie free agent. Plus, there are always punting prospects not at the Combine as well.

"You find them where you find them," Thompson said. "(To evaluate them) it's usually watching them play in games and watching them perform. You see the kind of explosion they have, the mechanics, where those mechanics will work. There are certain things you have to have -- you have to have a powerful leg, you have to have consistency, you have to have really good hands and be pretty athletic."

The Packers are hoping their return game takes a step up as well after a non-descript 2009 in that department. Both McCarthy and Thompson expressed their confidence in Will Blackmon, who will be coming off a knee injury, and McCarthy said the kickoff return unit in particular should improve now that it has implemented coordinator Shawn Slocum's scheme changes from 2009.

"Returning is an interesting art," Thompson said. "Quite frankly it's a dangerous job, because it seems like everyone we put out there to return punts or kickoffs gets hurt. Will Blackmon is a good returner. It hurt us when he got hurt last year. People kind of forget those things."


It's been called a lot of things relative to the '09 offense that was prolific in so many ways. But it was the glaring weakness, the black eye, etc., -- the sacks the unit gave up: 41 in the first nine games before dramatic improvement led to just 10 sacks over the final seven contests in the regular season.

There's plenty of uncertainty here, because starting tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher will become unrestricted free agents in another week. McCarthy and Thompson each expressed a strong desire to bring both players back, but there's no telling how that will play out.

{sportsad300}"With their situations, we're not ready to have a starting lineup yet," McCarthy said.

That said, one player who could fill one of those tackle spots if needed is second-year pro T.J. Lang. He put together an impressive rookie season in which he played three positions - left guard, left tackle and right tackle - starting games at both tackle spots.

"We like T.J. a lot," Thompson said. "He has very good versatility and the game's not too big for him, and he thinks he can play, and those are good qualities. We like him and we're glad he's part of our group. How he factors into the starting lineup, we'll have to wait and see."

It still isn't clear which is Lang's best position, but with players going from Year 1 to Year 2 expected to make the biggest improvements, Lang will be a player to keep an eye on in 2010.

"He's got a lot of experience, but I think a good year in the weight room and we're going to see a different T.J. Lang next year," McCarthy said.

A lot has to be sorted out on the line as a whole, with interior players like Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge entering restricted free agency soon as well. The team has drafted at least two offensive linemen in four of the last five seasons, so that will factor in too.

Injuries as well as performance issues have kept the offensive line in an almost constant state of flux over the last few seasons, and that is something the Packers hope they can finally change, though it's not entirely in their control.

"We'll see how it plays out," Thompson said. "I like continuity. It would be nice to be able to play the same five guys for 15, 16, 17 weeks in a row, as opposed to having to switch them up because of injuries or nicks or something like that."


Like the offense, the defense had its one major flaw. The unit that led the league in run defense and turnovers had its share of struggles against experienced, top-flight quarterbacks whose offenses spread the Packers out and tested their pass-coverage depth.

Former Packer Brett Favre did it twice during the first half of the regular season, and the problem re-surfaced down the stretch in shootouts against Pittsburgh and Arizona in the NFC Wild Card game. Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner had their way against a depleted secondary that by that time had three of its top five cornerbacks (Al Harris, Will Blackmon and Pat Lee) on injured reserve.

"We would have liked to not been in a shootout, but it happens," Thompson said. "It's the NFL. The other side is pretty good too.

"You never have too many (cornerbacks) because things happen. That's part of the business, the durability of your group to get through a season. When you look out there and see who you're finishing with as opposed to who you're starting with, sometimes it's a different cast of characters."

One of those characters who will be expected to contribute more is Brandon Underwood. Like Lang, Underwood is now a second-year player who got a taste of the pro game as a rookie and showed he has some skills, though Underwood is probably farther away from a potentially significant role than Lang.

"He definitely has the size and the athletic ability," McCarthy said of the 2009 sixth-round draft pick. "He has the ability to get up and play bump-and-run, and he really started to come into his own on special teams.

"You probably didn't want to play him as early as we had to on defense, but I thought he really did some good things on special teams and started to grow, get his feet underneath him. The guy has the ability to play in this scheme, and I think he has a tremendous upside."

The return to health of some and improvement from within for others will certainly help, but McCarthy acknowledged the scheme will be evaluated as well, to give the defense more counterpunches in that situation, particularly when injuries strike and depth is tested.

"Anytime you take the coverage ability away from the defense, you have to have personnel groupings or concepts to overcome that," he said. "That was part of our challenge late in the season. People were trying to spread us out to get our dime package on the field. Those are things we'll take a close look at and how we can overcome that in the future."

McCarthy said these specific points of emphasis will be communicated to the players from the moment they return for the start of the offseason program in mid-March. He also won't lose sight of what this team has going for it, though, because the clear pinpointing of a handful of areas for improvement speaks to all the other areas that produced success.

"The positives clearly outweigh the negatives," McCarthy said. "We have a lot to build off on defense, especially with (last year) being our first year. I was very pleased with the way the players bought into it throughout the offseason, the commitment they made. We struggled there a little bit in the beginning, but I thought we got going where we needed to be.

"Offensively, we can be better. We broke a number of records offensively in the history of the Packers, but we've got an opportunity to get better. Our quarterback gives us that chance, and special teams is the area where you are going to see the most improvement on our football team."

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content