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Packers weaving way through injuries
GREEN BAY, Wis.
Statistics show that Green Bay is one of the NFL’s most injury-plagued teams in 2012.
Aaron Rodgers needs no reminder.
Rodgers himself hasn’t missed a start, an impressive feat considering the star quarterback has been sacked an NFL-high 42 times in 13 games. But it’s the absence of those around him that has taken just as heavy a toll.
Six offensive starters or their replacements were forced to miss multiple contests since the season-opener. That includes Green Bay’s top receiving targets (Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings) and running backs (Cedric Benson and James Starks).
Rodgers is doing his best to compensate for the missing pieces in an offense based on timing and precision. But he will be the first to admit it hasn’t been easy.
"I think this season more than any other has just been a mental and physical grind," Rodgers told FOXSports.com at Packers headquarters following Thursday’s practice. "I find myself more tired because of the actual preparation and extra study. We’ve had to change up some personnel packages and plays to try and make things easier on some of the young guys who are playing more. It’s been a lot of different guys playing.
"It has been frustrating at times with the lack of familiarity with some of the guys who have been out there. We haven’t had Greg and Jordy for too many games playing at the same time, which is difficult."
But in his next breath, Rodgers says 2012 is “probably the most rewarding season” he’s had in eight years in the NFL.
This sounds like hyperbole from a player who won a Super Bowl ring in 2010 and captured the league’s MVP honor in 2011. But there is a legitimate reason for Rodgers and his teammates to feel proud. With a victory Sunday at Chicago in the FOX America’s Game of the Week (1 p.m. ET kickoff), the Packers will clinch the NFC North title despite the obstacles they faced.
"You’ve seen us go from a slow-starting team that was struggling — and a lot of people kind of turned on us — to a team that now has a chance to achieve our first goal this week. That’s win the division," Rodgers said.
"Obviously, we have bigger plans in sight."
The vision of a playoff run or Super Bowl appearance was clouded after the Packers opened with a 2-3 record. But even as players moved in and out of the starting lineups on both offense and defense, Green Bay (9-4) persevered by winning seven of its next eight games.
"You go into a season with optimism that you're going to have everybody healthy and a full-strength team going into every game," Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse told FOXSports.com. "But that's never how it goes. Every team in the league won't have someone they're expected to have.
"Guys who aren’t playing their normal position or are out of position are stepping into roles they haven't filled before and helping us win. That’s something we preach here and buy into."
Regardless of injuries, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy’s told FOXSports.com that his plan entering the season was to rotate more fresh faces on the field defensively. The hope was that these youngsters would quickly mature so the unit would get better as the season unfolded and Green Bay could improve last year’s league-low rankings in yards allowed and pass defense.
This approach has paid off. The Packers are allowing almost 60 fewer yards a game. A secondary with four starters or key reserves in their first or second seasons — including cornerback Casey Hayward, who leads all NFL rookies with five interceptions — has shown significant improvement. Two more rookies (defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and outside linebacker Dezman Moses) are receiving playing time off the bench as well.
McCarthy, though, couldn’t envision that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers would be forced into so much mixing and matching with eight starters sidelined for two or more games. That includes two of the league’s most heralded defenders in outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) and strong safety Charles Woodson (collarbone).
Matthews is expected to return against Chicago following a four-game absence. Woodson will miss his seventh straight contest.
"We felt that for as many games as we won last year, how do you improve as a team at the end of the year?" said McCarthy, whose squad finished the 2011 regular season at a league-best 15-1 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. "It's by having more guys with more experience. Injuries have enhanced that, particularly on defense. They've had to play but they're playing well."
Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk told FOXSports.com that the youth infusion began during the offseason when the Packers began installing their defensive packages and had players assume multiple roles in case of injuries.
"Our defense is pretty complex," said Hawk, who is the only Packers linebacker to start all 13 games. "It’s communication-based. We’re talking all the time and all 11 of us have to be on the same page. It definitely takes work. But we’ve been having different guys come in and rotate at different positions because we know situations come up.
"No matter what business you’re in, young people bring a lot of energy. A lot of them are bright-eyed seeing things for the first time. But they don’t play like that. They step into a pressure-packed situation making big plays. We have a great balance on this team of some veterans who have been around for a while and some of these youngsters who are just flying around having a great time. We feed off their energy."
Rodgers could use some of that pep.
While his passing numbers are slightly down across the board from last year’s banner campaign, what Rodgers has done in 2012 may be even more impressive because of the supporting cast.
Not having deep threats like Nelson and Jennings consistently available, especially at the same time, has curtailed the deep passing game. This is evidenced by Rodgers’ average per completion having dropped from a gaudy 9.2 yards last season to 7.5 yards.
Jennings returned to action two weeks ago following groin surgery, but Nelson will miss a second straight game after aggravating a strained hamstring. Rodgers said the Packers are being forced to use different routes and concepts to compensate.
The midseason absence of fullback John Kuhn for two games caused headaches in third-down situations and pass protection, an area weakened further when right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down with a season-ending hip injury in Week 9. The constant rotation at running back hasn’t helped, either.
This has led to Rodgers spending more time learning the responsibilities of every offensive position to a T.
"It’s just been extra study to make sure that without a doubt that I know exactly what everybody is doing out there so when there are questions from some of those young guys I can rapid-fire response," Rodgers said. "To not have to think about the response has been more important when you’re working with guys where you don’t have the same kind of connection and haven’t spent a lot of on-field time together.
"I just have to be flawless in my knowledge of the offense. It takes some study, even though I’ve been here for eight years."
According to STATS LLC, the Packers were 11th among NFL teams in games missed by players entering Week 15 with 135 (Jacksonville is first at 189). The Bears were 30th at 58 games, but Chicago’s good fortunate has started to change.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith took the highly unusual step of converting the standard Wednesday practice into a walk-through because of injuries. Four of the six players who missed Thursday’s session are key cogs on defense. Another six Bears were limited in participation, including quarterback Jay Cutler (neck/knee).
Anyone who can play for the Bears (8-5) will try to give it a go Sunday at Soldier Field. With a fifth loss in six games, Chicago’s playoff chances would take a huge hit.
McCarthy enters the matchup with a different kind of problem. And for a change, it’s a good one.
"Now the toughest part is going to be who's active?” he said. “This is going to be the first week where we're going to be putting down a couple of guys who are healthy. We haven't had that in a month.
"That's the hardest part of my job but it also speaks to the place we want to be. We're trying to make sure we're the most well-rounded team playing our best football at the end of the year."
A victory over the Bears – and better health -- would go a long way in that regard.
“If you want to be a great team, you’ve got to play really well right now and peak at this point,” Hawk said. “We’re hoping to do that. Getting some guys back would definitely help.”
Rodgers knows that all too well.