5 Green Bay Packers Players Key to Super Bowl Run in 2014 Season
After a 2013 season that ended earlier than fans were hoping, the Green Bay Packers look like one of the favorites to challenge the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC this year, but there will be a few players key to making a run at the Super Bowl during the 2014 campaign.
Along with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will be getting plenty of players back that missed considerable time in 2013. Names such as Randall Cobb, Casey Hayward, Clay Matthews and Bryan Bulaga should all be ready to go by Week 1, and that's bad news for the rest of the NFC North.
While stars like Rodgers and Matthews will be expected to do big things, let's take a look at five players that will have to play well if the Packers are going to get through teams like the Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers to make it out of the NFC and into the Super Bowl at the end of the season.
In just two seasons, defensive end Mike Daniels has quickly emerged as one of the few bright spots on Green Bay's defense after a strong 2013 performance. However, if he cannot continue that success heading into his third NFL season, the defensive line could be in a bit of trouble.
Daniels carried a lot of the load on the defensive line in 2013 due to B.J. Raji's ineffectiveness against the run, and the 25-year-old stepped up his game. Along with an impressive 6.5 sacks, he also was a major asset in stopping the run, something the Packers have struggled to do over the past few seasons.
In fact, the argument could be made that Daniels was the most effective and consistent player on the defense last season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Daniels had the highest overall grade on the defense at 17.3, with Tramon Williams coming in second at just 3.3.
Fortunately, Datone Jones will have another full offseason to improve, and Raji will be moving back to nose tackle for the 2014 season, so if Daniels can play just as well as he did last year, the defensive line will improve drastically from where they were in 2013.
As a right tackle on such a pass-heavy offense in previous years, Bulaga has been a reliable option since being selected by the Packers in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. Now, after spending all of last year on injured reserve with a torn ACL, things are a bit different in Green Bay.
Because of the emergence of Eddie Lacy in the backfield, the Packers have an opportunity to be a balanced offense which will take some of the pressure off of Rodgers. Bulaga will be back on the right side of the offensive line, and he's proven during his time in the league that he can open up rushing lanes for the running backs.
Of course, there are concerns about how healthy Bulaga will be at the beginning of the year, but according to Vic Ketchman from Packers.com, the 25-year-old has been "stoning everybody."
The Packers averaged 133.5 rushing yards per game last season, ranking seventh in the league. However, with a healthy Bulaga on the right side, they have the opportunity to have an even more effective run game this season.
General manager Ted Thompson has rarely made high-profile, free-agent signings during his time in Green Bay, but when he has, they've usually worked out. Jeff Saturday may not have panned out in 2012, but signings like Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett in 2006 became crucial pieces when the team made a run to the Super Bowl in the 2010 season.
Now, Thompson is taking a chance on another big name in former Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.
At 34 years old, Peppers is still a terrific athlete that will be playing opposite of Matthews in a more hybrid "elephant" role, moving around while playing either on the line or standing up. He had just seven sacks with the Bears last season, but he looks like an ideal fit for the Packers in their 3-4 defense.
There were a lot of problems on defense last year for the Packers, but Peppers gives them an established veteran that can make a big impact. Along with being able to rush the passer or set the edge, Peppers has blocked 13 kicks in his NFL career, and that could prove to be huge in a close game at some point in the year.
Peppers may still be a bit of a wild card heading into a completely new defensive scheme, but he could end up being a key player on the defense that could give them just enough help to get that side of the football moving in a more positive direction.
Since Rodgers took over at quarterback, the passing game hasn't been an issue for the Packers. However, in previous seasons, the offense was too one-dimensional, with the running game struggling from time to time.
Now, thanks to a breakout year in 2013 from Eddie Lacy, it looks like the Packers might have the most balanced offense they've had in the Rodgers era.
The 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year ran for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Thanks to Lacy, the Packers averaged 26.1 points per game, making them a top-10 offense despite Rodgers playing in just nine games.
As is the case with all running backs, Lacy will have to stay healthy to repeat his success in 2014. If he's able to do that, the offense will be significantly more deadly, opening up the field and making Rodgers potentially even more deadly on play-action passes.
In 2012, Casey Hayward took the league by storm, as he emerged as one of the most promising defensive backs in the NFL in just his first season. In fact, he was so dominant that he held opposing quarterbacks to the lowest passer rating of any cornerback at just 31.1, according to Pro Football Focus.
Expectations were high in 2013, but injuries forced Hayward to miss almost the entire season, playing in just three games. Now that he's healthy once again, he'll likely be playing in the slot to go along with Williams and Sam Shields in the secondary.
That's great news for the Packers, as they struggled against the pass last season. They gave up around 247 passing yards per game with opposing quarterbacks posting a 95.9 passer rating, which ranked 25th in the league. According to Football Outsiders, the Packers ranked 28th in the NFL in pass defense.
Hayward's presence should help the pass defense quite a bit, and if he returns to his 2012 form, he may even help defensive coordinator Dom Capers keep his job.
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