For the most part, the Green Bay Packers' record-setting offense of 2011 returns intact for 2012. Only a couple of things look different.
The quarterback, the top five wide receivers, the deep group of tight ends and the starting offensive line – with veteran center Jeff Saturday seamlessly stepping in for departed veteran Scott Wells – are all back for another go-round.
"If we can top what we did last year, we'll be in good shape," receiver Jordy Nelson said with a smile, knowing how big an understatement that is after the Packers scored more points than all but one team in NFL history.
The backfield and the depth up front are the different stories, and whether they have an impact that's subtle or stark will be tracked beginning with the Week 1 showdown against San Francisco.
Newcomer Cedric Benson and second-year pro Alex Green have essentially replaced last year's backfield tandem of Ryan Grant and James Starks, for now. Grant is gone and Starks is out indefinitely with a turf toe injury.
Benson said on Monday he hasn't been told how the snaps will be divided amongst him, Green and third-down backs Brandon Saine and John Kuhn. Acquired midway through training camp, Benson knows that in order to become a true "feature back" he has to learn more of the playbook than he has thus far.
"I've still got a ways to go," he said. "I don't quite know where the end is, but I feel really good. I feel like I've been making a lot of strides in these couple of weeks I've been here, and I feel comfortable."
Benson said he would like to have carried the ball more than the 10 times he did over the final two preseason games in order to get ready, but he's not concerned about the lack of work. Of greater concern is the fumble on his first rush last Thursday, a repeat of which will only limit his opportunities going forward.
Where he could get the call is as a "closer" in the fourth quarter, when a big back is needed to grind out yards and protect a lead. In going 15-1 last season, the Packers only closed out a game that way once, with Starks in Week 7 at Minnesota.
"It can be tremendous, to keep the defense off the field, keep the opposing team's offense off the field, run out the clock and go home happy," Benson said. "That's how you want to end every game, and that's the way to put teams away, fast."
It seems the only thing that could quickly derail Green Bay's offense would be injuries, particularly if they're up front. The offensive line has just seven players on the 53-man roster, and the seventh is undrafted rookie Don Barclay.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he's comfortable with the fact the team has 10 offensive linemen "in house," including three on the practice squad – two rookies and second-year newcomer Chris Scott.
Still, as currently constructed, it's hard to see the Packers winning a game like the one in Atlanta last year. With right tackle Bryan Bulaga out and left tackle Chad Clifton going down in the first half, Marshall Newhouse flipped from the right to the left side, Derek Sherrod came off the bench, and the Packers rallied from a 14-0 deficit for a huge road win.
At this point, an injury at tackle would probably require left guard T.J. Lang to move outside, with Evan Dietrich-Smith taking Lang's place. A second injury likely couldn't be handled so simply.
"I think that's something I always have to prepare for," Lang said of possibly filling in at tackle. "My first three seasons here were all the same. I was a guy that had to bounce around and play a lot of different positions.
"The goal is always to stay healthy, so that doesn't have to happen, but if an emergency does happen, then no different than any other year, I'm going to have to be ready to move around a little bit."
Getting ready for the 49ers' stingy defense is the specific task this week. Heading into a day off Tuesday before three more days of practice Wednesday through Friday, the offense is confident it'll be prepared.
Lang said it's not about preparing to break records again. In the end last year, "it didn't really mean much."
The same can be said for the training camp and preseason that just concluded. It's bottom-line time, beginning Sunday.
"It's real now," receiver James Jones said. "Play time is over.
"It goes down on the record now, win or loss, so we've got to get it done." Related links