GREEN BAY, Wis. — So much for the notion that Aaron Rodgers’ health would be at risk behind the Green Bay Packers’ banged-up offensive line.
With the Packers missing three of their top four tackles because of injuries and only two offensive line starters playing the same positions they were in Week 1, the patchwork Packers held the Chicago Bears’ defense at bay in a 35-21 victory Sunday night.
Rodgers wasn’t sacked and threw five touchdowns, allowing Green Bay to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and knock Chicago out of playoff contention.
“I barely got touched out there,” Rodgers said Sunday night. “That’s always fun.”
Still, Packers coach Mike McCarthy might be tempted to rest Rodgers for at least some of Sunday’s regular-season finale against Detroit to keep him out of harm’s way.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to do what’s best for this team and the individuals on your football team,” McCarthy said Monday. “We’re preparing to win this game.”
A significant injury to Rodgers would be catastrophic for the Packers’ hopes of repeating as Super Bowl champions, and there was plenty of concern about the line’s ability to protect him from Julius Peppers and the rest of the Bears’ solid defensive front.
Rodgers had been sacked seven times and taken several other big hits in the Packers’ previous two games, a victory over Oakland and a loss at Kansas City.
“When your quarterback’s getting hit and sacked as much as Aaron the past couple weeks, that’s the last thing you want to have happen as an offensive lineman,” lineman T.J. Lang said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of talking. Everyone understood the urgency level that we had to have to win those one-on-one battles and keep (Rodgers) clean because he can make a lot of big plays when he’s not getting touched.”
Lang switched from left guard to right tackle after the Packers lost starter Bryan Bulaga to a sprained left knee and backup Derek Sherrod to a broken right leg against the Chiefs.
Evan Dietrich-Smith stepped in for Lang at left guard. Backup Marshall Newhouse already had been filling in at left tackle for Chad Clifton, out since Oct. 9 with hamstring and back injuries.
That meant center Scott Wells and right guard Josh Sitton were the only two players in the same spots they were in for the Packers’ season opener against New Orleans.
It didn’t work particularly well against the Chiefs, Rodgers couldn’t mount a comeback and the Packers lost their first game of the season. But the reshuffled line then had a week to practice together and prepare for the Bears, and things looked much better Sunday night.
McCarthy helped keep the Bears’ pass rush off-balance early by using a no-huddle offense and rolling out Rodgers, and the line did the rest.
“That was a big challenge for the offensive line,” McCarthy said. “The offensive line actually is going to receive a game ball when we come back together Wednesday. I think that tells you how we felt about their performance as a whole.”
The offense did hit a lull in the first half that allowed the Bears to stay in the game into the third quarter. Then the Packers scored on three straight possessions to put away the game.
“It was big that we had a full week to kind of jell together and practice together as the five we had out there starting,” Lang said Sunday. “Definitely big for us today to go out and pitch a shutout in the sack category. It took a little bit more pride in protecting Aaron. Obviously, the last couple games, he was getting hit too much. That was one thing we knew that the Bears had a great pass-rushing defense and we would have to take a little more pride in winning your individual battle and keep him clean.”
The Packers did allow a sack of backup quarterback Matt Flynn in the fourth quarter Sunday night, but not until well after the game had been decided.
“They played excellent,” Rodgers said. “I think a lot of people were questioning even the starters and the way that they’ve played. We had T.J. at right tackle and we had Evan at left guard and those guys played great. I’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They’re the MVPs tonight.”
Of course, getting good play from backups is nothing new for a Packers team that shook off significant injuries to win the Super Bowl last year.
“For us to not give up any sacks tonight was a huge thing,” Sitton said. “It speaks to the guys that we have. Last year, we dealt with the whole injury thing all year, and this week, we had to play a couple guys in different positions upfront and everybody handled it well. It’s pretty cool.”
McCarthy said Bulaga is “close” to returning, and said he wants Clifton to play this week.
“He knows that, and that’s the goal,” McCarthy said. “But once again, it is an injury situation, and what he’s gone through the last nine, 10 weeks, we’ll take it day by day.”
And while it’s not clear when Clifton or Bulaga will return, one thing is certain: The Packers’ backup linemen don’t particularly like hearing the term “patchwork” used to describe their play.
“I think we played pretty well, our quote-unquote ‘patchwork’ line,” Newhouse said. “We have guys who have been in the system for a while and trust each other, and we had a good week of preparation, so it worked out well.”