As heretical as it may sound, the sheer amount of injuries that have devastated the Packers this season might have just made them a more dangerous team. The Packers of today are essentially an entirely different team than the one that took the field 5 months ago and that has caused confusion for other teams.
One of the most important pre-game preparations is watching game film on team’s and player’s tendencies. The tricky part about playing a team with a new or relatively new players is that there simply isn’t much tape on them. Couple that with a smart coach who plays to his player’s strengths and the whole team can operate differently.
For instance, the 49ers obviously were at a disadvantage since they had no way of knowing that James Starks was going to be the “hot” running back in week 13 nor did the Bears pay much attention to Erik Walden in the days leading up to the week 17 game.
On the offense, the 3 most significant injuries were to starting running back Ryan Grant, starting tight end Jermichael Finley and starting right tackle Mark Tauscher. Losing Mark Tauscher was perhaps the easiest to cope with; after a disastrous season for the offensive line in 2009, the Packers chose tackle Bryan Bulaga with their first pick and while he has gone through the ups and downs typical of a rookie, he has graded out as the best linemen in terms of pass protection.
While he may not be a finished product just yet, he surely isn’t a liability and in the long run the experience he gains now will probably help him as he becomes the left tackle of the future.
Losing Ryan Grant was a big blow for the offense, in particular in the beginning of the season. While Grant was never the explosive big name running back, he fit particularly well in the Packers offensive scheme and always seemed to be able to get at least a couple yards, regardless of the situation.
Without him, the Packers were left with Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn. While neither was able to fill Grant’s shoes entirely, Kuhn has evolved into a very good short distance runner and with the emergence of rookie James Starks, the Packers have perhaps a slightly upgraded version of Ryan Grant for the future.
The one loss that the Packers never really recovered from was the loss of Jermichael Finley. Since leaving for IR in week 5, no Packers tight end has come remotely close to matching Finley’s production. But paradoxically, even Finley’s injury might have made the Packers a better team.
In the beginning of the season, Aaron Rodgers seemed to have a fixation on Finley as he became Rodger’s safety net, big playmaker and mismatch nightmare all in one. Unfortunately this lead to defenses doubling and keying in on Finley which dropped offensive production overall.
Contrast that to last week’s game against Atlanta, where all four main receivers had at least 75 yards. In short the loss of Finley has lead to a more balanced passing attack, now defense must defend all wide receivers and not just one tight end.
On defense, there hasn’t been much of drop-off due to injuries, strong safety Charlie Peprah could be argued is playing better than rookie strong safety Morgan Burnett and middle linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar have been replaced by AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop without no performance loss there either.
Perhaps the biggest loss would be in outside linebacker Brad Jones, since Frank Zombo nor Erik Walden are as good as Jones against the run, but Walden makes up for it against the pass.
Morgan Burnett’s injury might actually benefit everyone. It allows Burnett another year to learn the Capers’ 3-4 defense (of which safeties play a key role in calling defensive plays) and in my opinion Charlie Peprah has done a better job that Burnett or Atari Bigby from a year before.
While he isn’t a playmaker, he certainly is a very technically sound player who doesn’t mess up assignments often and can play both the pass and the run equally well, which neither Burnett (not good against the run) or Bigby (not good against the pass) were capable of.
For the outside linebackers, the Packers might have found a pass-rushing specialist in Erik Walden, who garnered NFC player of the week for his 3 sack, 16 tackle game in week 16 against the Bears.
Presumably the Bears will be looking quite in depth this time into Walden for the NFC conference game, and that might open up more opportunities for Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson or Cullen Jenkins.
Also factor in that starter Brad Jones never had the time to become an impact player after taking over the position when Aaron Kampman went onto IR last year, and its not that hard to understand why there wasn’t a huge drop in play from the outside linebacker position across from Clay Matthews.
Finally, both starting middle linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar were replaced by AJ Hawk, who had no snaps in the first game, and “Mr. August” Desmond Bishop (who ironically didn’t have that great of a preseason).
Losing Nick Barnett was the toughest, especially considering the fact that he was the quarterback of the defense who often called the plays for the defense, but AJ Hawk has managed to fill that role and has shown glimpses of being a playmaker (which was one of the criticisms laid onto Hawk as he is a solid player but not worth of the 5th overall pick in 2006) .
On the other side, there was much concern about losing the best coverage linebacker in Bradon Chillar, but coverage might be one of Desmond Bishop most unheralded strengths. For instance, his interception return during the Vikings game in week 7 he was actually covering wide receiver Randy Moss and he’s actually gone out wide to lineup directly across from wide receivers in some situations.
Of course, there are some caveats to all of this; for one, Packers fans should count their blessings that none of their star players like Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews or Charles Woodson were held out for long periods of time. Sometimes, regardless of scheme, there is no way to replace a star player.
Secondly, fans should be raving about head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers; each coach has managed to keep the basic philosophy of their squad intact even with so many changing parts.
Capers in particular has been quoted as saying that he throws out a huge amount of plays based on the personnel he has at his disposal for that given week, yet still manages to keep a consistent defense.
Of course, it could be the other way around, maybe the defense has been so unpredictable because Capers has been forced to not have tendencies being that every week he can’t run the same plays with a different set of players to work with.
So it is players or is it the scheme? My personal opinion is that its mostly in the scheme. There are just too many players who had little to no game experience and have filled in nicely, to warrant an argument for the players’ ability.
Sam Shields, Frank Zombo, James Starks and Bryan Bulaga had no game experience at all. Howard Green, Charlie Peprah, Erik Walden and Desmond Bishop had little to none and hadn’t proved much when they were on the field.
It’s a testament to the abilities of the entire coaching staff to how much success all of these one time backups have had.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.