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Injuries Central to Green Bay Problems

A 4-1 NFL team can't have too many problems but there have been some for Aaron Rodgers and Co. as they roll into Soldier Field looking to win there for the third straight time, and here's one view from north of the border on those issues.

What would the Hatfields and McCoys be without the Hatfields? What would they be without the McCoys?

Every long-standing feud has two sides and the Bears and Packers have been at this for so long that legendary Packers P.R. director Lee Remmel used to refer to them as "primordial" rivals.  

Frank Hanny of the Bears and Green Bay's Tillie Voss became the first NFL players tossed for fighting in 1924 and the fun was under way.

It's claimed Chicago's John "Tarzan" Taylor threw a sucker punch that broke the nose of Packers tackle Howard Buck in 1921, but apparently this act of legitimate pugilism went undetected or the Packers just made it up because there was no ejection. 

It's time to take a look across the cheese curtain to the north side of the border as Bill Huber of Packer Central answers all the big questions about Green Bay, with the exception of what Buck really did to deserve that alleged sucker punch.

Q: Did it only take one game for Aaron Rodgers to get back his timing in the offense or what gives? Why has he been so much better in the last four games than in the beating they took against the Saints in the opener?

Huber: That Week 1 game was a “weird” one, to use Davante Adams’ word. Rodgers is a brilliant player but so much of this offense is built on running the football. Running Play A looks like Bootleg B and Play-Action C. The Saints played ball hog in that game. Late in the first half, they had scored more points than the Packers had run plays. Forced into catch-up mode, the game plan went out the window.

That’s not making excuses. The Saints hogged the ball because they dominated every phase of the game. And I think the fact the Saints played their guys in the preseason in order to figure out their starting quarterback, while the Packers keep their starters enveloped by bubble wrap, played a role, too.

The Packers have run the ball better and generally played from ahead the past four weeks. That’s meant a balanced offense and play-calling that maximizes Rodgers’ considerable talent. Obviously, that will be key on Sunday. If the Packers can’t run the ball, then Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn can go into attack mode.

Q: What happened to that great Green Bay three-headed running game from last year? Is it losing Jamaal Williams that brought the Packers down to 21st in rushing? Was it losing David Bakhtiari or any of the other offensive line injuries they've had?

Huber: You’re right. It’s not been the same. Even last week, when they averaged 6.0 yards per carry in the victory at Cincinnati, the bulk of the yards came on a 59-yard run by Aaron Jones and a 17-yard run by AJ Dillon.

Injuries on the revamped offensive line have been the biggest factor. Bakhtiari, the All-Pro left tackle, tore an ACL on New Year’s Eve and is on the physically unable to perform list. He could return to practice next week. Pro Bowl left guard Elgton Jenkins replaced Bakhtiari but suffered an ankle injury in Week 2 and has missed the last three games. Looking back to Week 3, the green-as-grass line included left tackle Yosh Nijman (first start), left guard Jon Runyan (second start), rookie center Josh Myers (third start) and rookie right guard Royce Newman (third start). Jenkins and Myers were out last week but are practicing this week.

Q: Have any of the other wide receivers besides Davante Adams shown with certainty they can be real threats, and don't count Randall Cobb in that group because his main focus in life is and always was making the Bears miserable?

Huber: No, definitely not. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, one of the top long-ball threats in the NFL, is on injured reserve. He had six catches and one touchdown in his three games. Allen Lazard, whose value is more in doing the grunt work as a blocker, has seven catches and zero touchdowns in five games. I’ll mention (Cobb), sorry. He had five catches against Pittsburgh in Week 4–four to convert third downs and the other a touchdown.

I’ll mention tight end Robert Tonyan here, too. Last season, he led all NFL tight ends in catch rate (88 percent), drops (zero) and touchdowns (11, tied with Travis Kelce). He had a great training camp, too, but hasn’t done much this season. He’s caught nine passes and scored one touchdown. There have been more incompletions thrown his way this year (eight) than all of last year (seven).

That said, there’s been enough balance. In each of the four wins, someone other than Adams has had at least 50 receiving yards and the “others” have eight of the 10 touchdown catches.

Q. Why has the defense remained afloat even with injuries to Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith, and what has Joe Barry added that they didn't get from traitor Mike Pettine?

Huber: That’s a great question. I picked against the Packers last week, figuring Joe Burrow would pick apart a defense without its All-Pro cornerback and Pro Bowl pass rusher. That didn’t happen, though. First-round pick Eric Stokes has been pretty good. He went toe-to-toe with Ja’Marr Chase last week and battled to a draw. He’s got size, speed and competitiveness. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark and inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell have been fantastic. They’ve really been the glue.

Still, I don’t know that this is sustainable, especially when they start playing really good quarterbacks. Starting in Week 8, they play Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson (maybe), Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford.

If Alexander (shoulder) and Smith (back) are able to come back, this team has real hope for a long playoff run. If Alexander’s shoulder requires season-ending surgery and Smith can’t come back from his surgery, it’s hard to imagine this team beating a Tom Brady, Murray or Stafford in the playoffs.

Q: How are people in Wisconsin bracing now for when Rodgers is playing next year in the NFC West or AFC West? Will there even be a state of Wisconsin then?

Huber: That last question is quite good. Giannis is still in Wisconsin and beer is still brewed here, so I’d say yes on Wisconsin’s continued existence.

For now, I think it’s out of sight and out of mind. Rodgers, first of all, is playing well. And, second, it doesn’t take much reading of body language to see that Rodgers is fully invested in winning this season. So long as Rodgers is cooking and the team is winning, the 2022 questions will remain pushed well into the background.