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Packers’ priority No. 1: A fast start on the scoreboard

By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Last year, the Green Bay Packers scored the most points of any team in Week 1.

Three weeks later they had scored more points than any team and were 4-0.

It’s possible there’s a correlation.

Apparently, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy thinks so because his point of emphasis with his offense every season is to get off to a fast start. When he talks about tempo, he doesn’t mean just getting in and out of the huddle quickly.

“I think you want to come into a game where you know you want to be hot, you want everything to be fine,” receiver Donald Driver said. “Last year, we just came out and felt good, coming off the preseason, we felt it was our time.”

There is one thing to consider about that opening-night, 42-34 victory over the New Orleans Saints in which the Packers piled up 399 yards and six offensive touchdowns. It came against a team that finished 30th in the NFL in pass defense.

The Packers were a fairly healthy team coming out of training camp last year, especially along the offensive line. The same is true this year, although absences by receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley for long periods during camp raise a question about how much precision the offense will show opening day against San Francisco.

Against Cincinnati in the third exhibition game, the No. 1 offense played a half and scored 17 points while rolling up 245 yards. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was off on 10 of 22 passes, one of which was picked off.

And Rodgers scrambled six times for 52 yards, including touchdown runs of 12 and 5 yards.

Depending what color glasses you’re wearing, the Packers offense is either ready to light up the scoreboard or needing some spark plugs tightened. McCarthy said he would draw on the week of practice leading up to this game to help form his opinion of where things stand.

“We’ve gone about our offense a little differently, but it’s important for us to practice and get the rhythm and timing,” McCarthy said after a 11/2-hour practice Monday. “I felt these last two weeks of preseason our offense was clicking that way.

“We just had two team periods today, and I feel good about what we accomplished. I’ll have to look at the tape to validate that, but really that confidence is built on your preparation.”

A big difference between the way the Packers start offensively this year compared to last year is the opponent. The Packers believe that if their offense is clicking that they can roll up yards and points on anybody.

But they also have seen tape of the 49ers defense, whose No. 4 ranking last year underscored their reputation as one of the best-tackling, highest-energy, hardest-hitting units in the NFL.

Opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 73.6 and were sacked 42 times last year. Running backs averaged 3.5 yards per carry and combined for just four rushes of more than 20 yards all year.

“We care who we play,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “They have a great defense. It will be a big challenge and we have to do the necessary things we need to do to be successful. We know what kind of defense they have.

“But we also know the only thing we can control is ourselves. Everything else is out of our control.”

It’s true that when the Packers have been at their worst offensively, they’ve mostly been their own worst enemies. But few could say that the New York Giants didn’t affect the way the Packers played in a playoff loss last season.

Most of the year, the Packers’ offensive talent took over whenever things went bad and the mistakes weren’t enough to force them to lose. But they were far from flawless and if weaknesses are showing it’s likely the 49ers defense will expose them.

“There’s always room for improvement,” receiver James Jones said. “We’re always going to say we can get better. There’s always going to be plays we leave out there. The main thing is that we’re on the same page. If our communication is there, we should be OK.”

A couple of things still not completely settled with the Packers offense are the integration of newcomer Cedric Benson to the running game, consistency from left tackle Marshall Newhouse and a hierarchy for all the outlets Rodgers has at his side.

Of all of them, Benson might be the most important because he represents an answer to the heavy emphasis opposing defenses put on playing the pass against the Packers. They could not consistently run the ball last year, and Benson’s presence could change that.

But as his fumble against Kansas City showed, he doesn’t come wrapped up in a bow. He’s got as much to prove to people as anyone, especially those guys walking around with rings on their fingers.

“I know we’re poised to do a lot of great things,” Benson said. “Everybody’s been here, a lot of these guys were on the Super Bowl team. They know how to win games.”

And start fast.

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