GREEN BAY, Wis. — Next man up. It’s not a new idea in the NFL, and it’s one the Packers are once again becoming quite familiar with as their injury report continues to grow.
But in Green Bay this season, the next man up at many positions is arguably just as good as — if not better than — the player he’s replacing. The depth on the Packers’ roster, as put together by general manager Ted Thompson, is well-equipped to handle the injuries the team is facing.
Offensively, Green Bay has been without two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings for more than half the season now. But in his absence, James Jones and Randall Cobb are becoming stars.
“I think in general we have a lot more starter-caliber players (this season), especially on our bench,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers told FOXSportsWisconsin.com this week. “A lot of times there’s a drop-off when the next guy comes in, but I think with us, when Greg goes down, we have a starter-quality guy in Randall Cobb stepping in to play the slot position.”
Cobb, a second-round pick in 2011, had his first career 100-yard receiving game in a Week 6 win over the Houston Texans. He’s second on the team in receptions and yards and has become a more integral part of the offense each week.
Jones, 28, has had two touchdown catches in each of the past three games. If he has two more touchdowns Sunday in St. Louis against the Rams, he’ll become the first receiver in franchise history to do so in four consecutive games.
With veteran Cedric Benson out until at least Week 14 because of a Lisfranc foot injury, second-year running back Alex Green ran the ball very well in his first career start and looks more than capable of keeping the Packers’ ground game effective now and into the future.
“Alex is an NFL starting running back,” Rodgers said. “He has that kind of ability. He just needs an opportunity and experience. When opportunity and experience are added to your talent, that’s when the confidence continues to blossom. I think we’re going to see more good things from Alex.”
Rodgers has also been impressed with the backup tight ends, most specifically second-year pro D.J. Williams. Though Jermichael Finley still dominates the snaps at that position in Green Bay, Williams is rated as the team’s best tight end through six games this season by ProFootballFocus.com.
“When J-Mike goes, I think D.J. got some reps and he’s an NFL starting tight end potential,” Rodgers said. “It’s not a big drop-off. The biggest thing about these guys is they just really prepare the right way. These guys are getting opportunities. Randall studies and prepares as well as anybody. I know D.J. and (tight ends) Ryan Taylor and (Tom Crabtree) getting an opportunity last week, those guys are very well prepared. That is as important as their talent.
“When you look at them from a straight talent standpoint, there’s a lot of starter-quality players behind the actual starters.”
The Packers’ defense is now without four of its Week 1 starters, but it may not result in a step back in production at all.
Pro Bowl nose tackle B.J. Raji will miss his second consecutive game with an ankle injury, but veteran Ryan Pickett performed at a high level in his place. Led by Pickett, who typically plays the majority of his snaps at defensive end, Green Bay held the NFL’s leading rusher, Texans running back Arian Foster, to 29 yards.
“(Playing) the nose is kind of natural for me,” Pickett said Friday. “I’ve been doing it my whole career. It’s just like I’m at home when I’m there. I’ll hold it down until B.J. gets back.”
Rookie outside linebacker Nick Perry, the Packers’ first-round pick, will miss the first game of his career this Sunday with a knee injury. But with fifth-year pro Erik Walden, who started 15 games last season, already getting an increased number of snaps in recent weeks, that transition could be an upgrade — at least in the short term — for Green Bay’s defense.
“Erik Walden has definitely made a step from last year,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I just love the way he plays. He’s physical, brings an attitude that you can’t have enough of on your football team. He’s clearly playing better this year than he did last year.”
Starting cornerback Sam Shields suffered a shin and ankle injury in Week 6 and will be out at least one game. Based on the way Shields reacted on the field immediately after the play, missing only one game may be an overly optimistic estimate. But Green Bay’s secondary is certainly prepared to replace him in the lineup.
In fact, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has two choices to start in Shields’ spot. Rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward leads the team with three interceptions and has improved drastically each week while playing in the nickel packages.
“He’s got excellent ball skills. He gets his hands on the ball quite a bit,” McCarthy said of Hayward. “I just have always liked the way he has played football, whether it’s inside or outside.”
Capers could also go with second-year cornerback Davon House, who would have been the starter this year had he not suffered a shoulder subluxation in the first preseason game. House has not played yet this season but has been a full participant in practices for several weeks while getting comfortable with a harness on his injured shoulder.
“When he got hurt, he was really playing the best since he’s been here,” Capers said. “He was gaining the confidence of the coaches. It was really too bad. I think this is his best week of practice. He’s looked more ready to play this week than since he got hurt.”
The biggest challenge for the Packers from an injury perspective is at inside linebacker. Starter Desmond Bishop was placed on injured reserve after tearing his right hamstring in preseason. His backup, D.J. Smith, is also now out for the season with a knee injury. That has forced Green Bay to turn to third-stringer Brad Jones, whom the team is attempting to convert from an outside linebacker to inside.
“We just felt backing him up off the ball and letting him play the inside linebacker position was more suited to him,” Capers said of Jones. “I think it’s been a good move. I think it’s the right place for him.”
The next-man-up idea isn’t simply a cliche for the Packers. It’s a reality that their depth at many positions has put them in an advantageous spot to not lose any production with their backup players on the field.
If Green Bay’s injuries linger, or more players go down, that depth will continue to be tested. But at the moment, despite having multiple starters out on both sides of the ball, the Packers shouldn’t look any different on game day.
“We’re just as good with the next guy a lot of times,” Rodgers said. “You have to give the staff credit because they design game plans to utilize the talents of the next guy up. The starter may do something really well and the next guy up who has starter talent, he might do something else a little better, or maybe we should stay away from things to just utilize their strengths.