Can they beat the Browns by going without them for the entire game?
This will be the biggest test of Aaron Rodgers' career.
Rodgers has been brilliant as the highest-rated passer in NFL history. He's also had an embarrassment of riches at the receiver position. In 2008, Jones was his No. 4 receiver. In 2009 and 2010, it was Jordy Nelson. In 2011, Cobb was his No. 5 receiver. In 2012, Greg Jennings was the fourth-leading receiver.
Cobb figures to be out through November with a broken fibula. Jones' availability for Sunday's game is in doubt. Potentially, Nelson and Jarrett Boykin would be the starters, with Myles White or a street free agent being the No. 3.
"I tell ya what, I love the way Aaron Rodgers is playing right now," coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's playing some really adverse football. This is very healthy for our football team in the long run. I don't like it. I don't like that I have to stand here and talk about the health of our team every week, but let's not forget who that affects most on offense. He's been asked to do things on the run that he's adapted to. He's played through some frustrating moments.
"I like him when he's salty and conflicting and all that. It's good to see that side of him. They're all competitive, don't get me wrong, but he has a tremendous competitive streak in him. That's why sometimes I think we can all get caught up in the numbers and go ‘wow.' But I really like the way he's playing right now."
Rodgers seemingly has played like a mere mortal this season, though his 101.9 rating is fifth in the league. He's been given more and more of a say over the offense as his career has progressed. Now more than ever, he'll have to win games at the line of scrimmage and strike when a big play is available. That's exactly what he did against the Ravens.
"I think he's playing well," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "I don't know how many adjustments he made in the game, run or pass, probably 14 or 15 or so and maybe (can) only question one or two of them. He's keeping us in clean plays. He's getting the run game, he's getting it to the right side. He was under some pressure yesterday, but he made some big plays, especially later in the game. I think our entire offense did. We had been saying for weeks that we need to be at our best in the fourth quarter and from the mid-third quarter on, our last four drives, we were outstanding. I think we had a field goal, touchdown and a field goal then ran out the clock in a 4-minute situation. I think we converted four out of five (third) downs, got some big plays, got a long touchdown pass. It was a close game against an outstanding opponent, so it was good to see that happen late in the game."
If receiver is thin, what do you call outside linebacker?
Already without Clay Matthews (broken thumb), the Packers will be without Nick Perry due to a broken foot. That leaves Mike Neal, who is transitioining from defensive end, undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba and sixth-round pick Nate Palmer as the three outside linebackers.
"He's our veteran guy right now," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Neal, a fourth-year pro who just made his third career start.
Matthews is a complete player and Perry had just started finding his stride because he had stopped relying on power, power and more power. Neal is excellent against the run and can rush the passer, but he looked like a fish out of water in space against the Ravens. Mulumba looks like an outstanding run defender but has shown little oomph as a rusher. Based on training camp, Palmer has the opposite skill-set.
So, Capers' challenge is to maximize Neal's skill-set while using Mulumba and Palmer based on down-and-distance situations.
"He played a lot yesterday so he's got to be able to take that next step," Capers said of Mulumba. "He had some nice plays. He had some really good rushes. He's a long-armed guy. Really a coachable guy when you think about where he's coming from, coming in as a free agent. We've had this before but he'll get an opportunity and I thought he took advantage of some of his opportunities Sunday."
The Packers' woeful kickoff-return unit masks the fact that the special teams as a whole has performed well this season.
And it looks like they've finally got a punt returner. Hyde returned five punts for 68 yards. His 13.6-yard average included returns of 23, 20 and 16 yards. The Packers missed a field goal on the first long return, Rodgers was intercepted in the end zone on the second and he set up a field goal on the third. That's game-changing field position.
"I thought we blocked them well on the three explosive gains and I thought Micah was real decisive after he caught the ball," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "I thought he got off the spot well and got vertical."
For the record, pending Monday night's game, Green Bay ranks 10th on punt returns (9.1 average) and 32nd on kickoff returns (13.0). Tim Masthay is 11th in net punting (41.1) and 21st in net kickoffs (21.4-yard line). Mason Crosby is 10th in field-goal percentage (92.9).
In Week 1, the Packers stuffed Frank Gore on third-and-1 from the 5 and the Niners were flagged for illegal formation. Not wanting to face the Niners on fourth-and-1, McCarthy accepted the penalty to set up a third-and-6. Colin Kaepernick scrambled for 4 yards, Matthews was penalized for unnecessary roughness and the 49ers scored a touchdown on the next play.
On Sunday, the Packers stuffed Ray Rice on third-and-goal from the 1 and the Ravens were flagged for holding. This time, McCarthy declined the penalty. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, they stuffed Bernard Pierce.
"The thinking was simple and it's exactly what I said on the headsets," McCarthy said. "‘We're playing great defense. I'm declining the penalty.' So, it wasn't really a conversation. I just felt strongly, just knowing the personality of their football team, they were going to try to run it again. I was just confident that we'd be able to stop it. Our defensive line did a great job. The penetration on that goal-line stand was outstanding. That's a moment as a defense that you can really build off of and I thought it was definitely one of the big, big plays, big segment of plays in the game."
On the third-down play, safety Morgan Burnett spun inside of fullback Vonta Leach's block, then beat Rice to the pylon for the tackle. On the fourth-down play, B.J. Raji stormed across the line of scrimmage, so Pierce took the ball to his left. At the point of attack, defensive tackle Mike Daniels overpowered left tackle Eugene Monroe. Inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, who was lined up over the right tackle, quickly diagnosed the play and shot across the formation. Cornerback Micah Hyde, who followed tight end Dallas Clark in motion, wound up lined up over left guard and got to Pierce before Clark could get to Hyde. Burnett joined the pile and the Packers had a crucial stop.
Capers called it "one of the better goal-lined stands I've been involved with."
It was a series of plays that went a long way to getting the Packers to 3-2.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.