GREEN BAY, Wis. — There is no debate heading into the playoffs for Packers coach Mike McCarthy when it comes to whether Chad Clifton or Marshall Newhouse will be protecting the blind side of Aaron Rodgers.
“Chad Clifton will be the starter,” McCarthy announced Monday morning. “Marshall’s done an excellent job. We won a lot of games with Marshall Newhouse. Chad Clifton is a starter; there won’t be any gray area for that.
“He’s a good player. Chad Clifton’s a damn good player.”
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Clifton returned in the regular-season finale Sunday against the Lions after being out since Week 5 when he injured his hamstring and knee. Over the last three months as Clifton was working his way towards a return, he injured his back while lifting weights and his rehabilitation was delayed.
The goal for Clifton on Sunday, according to McCarthy, was to get in 25 plays and that was exactly the number of snaps that Clifton had.
“I think he’s going to be happy with the film,” McCarthy said. “There’s some things he needs to work on, just some specifics as far as footwork. You could see the injury, the effects of what he still has to work on. Having two full weeks of preparation, I’m confident that he’ll get where he needs to be.”
With several key players getting the day off Sunday — including quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson — the Packers were able to escape without any further injuries other than a bruised ankle for backup tight end Ryan Taylor.
The biggest question from an injury standpoint for Green Bay is the health of running back James Starks.
“James Starks is the one person I’m concerned about,” McCarthy said.
Starks suffered a knee and ankle injury earlier this season, and every time he returned to the field it was re-aggravated.
Since the Packers’ game on Thanksgiving more than five weeks ago, Starks has gotten only 13 carries spread out over three games for a total of 37 yards. In addition to missing Sunday against Detroit, he was unable to play in Weeks 14 and 15.
There was better news when it came to wide receiver Greg Jennings, who has missed the last three weeks with an MCL sprain.
“I just saw Greg, he’s in the training room right now (and) he looks good,” McCarthy said. “I’m hoping he’ll practice Wednesday and be ready to go full the following week. I don’t see Greg missing a beat.”
Compared to a year ago when the Packers had 15 players on injured reserve heading into the postseason, this year’s team is in much better shape. Safety Nick Collins has been out since Week 2 with a severe neck injury, backup offensive tackle Derek Sherrod suffered a broken leg and is out, plus tight end Andrew Quarless and running back Alex Green both had season-ending knee surgeries.
But overall, it’s a much healthier group.
“It’s where you want to be,” McCarthy said. “It’s certainly better than the alternative. It’s going to be tough making the inactive list for the Divisional playoff game. That’s never any fun. But those are good problems to have.”
The one positional battle that is still without an answer is at right outside linebacker. Erik Walden started most of this season, but Frank Zombo was the starter this week. Also, linebackers Vic So’oto and Brad Jones both got a lot of action Sunday and both recorded a sack.
“We’re obviously playing a number of guys there,” McCarthy said. “It’s tough when you do roll players (in and out of the lineup). It’s like most positions; it’s hard to get into a rhythm. It’s something that needs to sort itself out and it will before the next game.”
When asked how it will sort itself, McCarthy responded, “That’s why you practice. It’s how you prepare. It’s why you grade tape. Obviously the defensive evaluation for this game will be very important. There’s a lot to correct. It’ll all factor in how we go forward.”
So’oto, who signed with Green Bay after going undrafted, made a big impression on the Packers when he had 1.5 sacks and an interception in the team’s final preseason game. However, So’oto was only active for seven games during the regular season and his sack of Matthew Stafford on Sunday was his first of the regular season.
“Vic’s definitely part of the conversation (at right outside linebacker),” McCarthy said.
The Packers players are off Monday and Tuesday before two scheduled practices later this week. They will not play their next game until Jan. 15 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, and could potentially face the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons or the Lions.