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Behind Enemy Lines: Inside the Green Bay Packers

Nate Latsch, who covers the St. Louis Rams for, fires away with five questions about the Green Bay Packers.

Aaron Rodgers has posted some incredible numbers over the years but he’s on pace for his best season, statistically speaking, so far in 2015. Is this the best you’ve seen him play and what has been different about him this season?

No doubt about it. What’s different is Rodgers is doing it without Jordy Nelson. I’ve used this stat a million times but Nelson had five touchdown catches of 60-plus yards last season. That was more 60-yard passing plays — touchdown or nontouchdown — than 30 of the other 31 teams. Without Nelson, the Packers don’t have that home-run threat. I’m not breaking any news here and the last four defensive coordinators to face the Packers knew those facts. Plus, second-year receiver Davante Adams has basically missed the last two games with a sprained ankle and star receiver Randall Cobb is playing through a bum shoulder. Moreover, the pass protection hasn’t been great. We’ll get into that in a bit.

And yet those issues really haven’t mattered. Rodgers leads the NFL in passer rating, has completed a personal-best 72.4 percent of his passes and is the only quarterback in the league without an interception. He’s the best combination of brains and skill the league has ever seen at the position. You can’t blitz him — he has the best passer rating against the blitz — and now you can’t change personnel because he zips the offense to the line of scrimmage to catch the defense with 12 on the field. The game is being played on his terms.

Has Rodgers shown any sign of weakness this season? If so, how do you think the Rams may try to get him off his game on Sunday?

Rodgers’ weakness is no different than the weakness of any other quarterback. It’s pressure. So from that standpoint, the Rams must like their chances every week because they can produce pressure with their four-man rush.

Really, to be more specific, it’s the up-the-middle pressure. Against Seattle, Green Bay’s offensive tackles allowed a lot of up-field pressure from the Seahawks’ defensive ends. But center Corey Linsley and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang were so good that Rodgers simply stepped up in the pocket, evaded to his left or right and completed the pass. Obviously, it’s going to be a lot harder to do that if the Packers can’t keep Aaron Donald out of the backfield. And since no one has kept Donald out of the backfield, Rodgers might be facing his biggest challenge of the season.

What are you feeling about Bryan Bulaga’s chances of returning to the lineup and playing on Sunday? How have Bulaga, David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay fared at the tackle spots through the first four weeks?

Bulaga, the standout right tackle, has missed the past three games with a knee injury sustained at practice three weeks ago. He returned to practice on Wednesday and took enough reps during our limited time at practice on Thursday that I think he’s going to give it a go.

That would be huge if he can play and play well. His replacement, Barclay, looks every bit the backup coming off a torn ACL. He gave up three sacks last week and is the worst pass protector among all tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. It should be pointed out that Barclay helped stop reigning sack king Justin Houston’s eight-game sack streak two weeks ago, so he’s played well at times. The Packers would rather not help their tackles, figuring Rodgers’ mobility and quick release mitigate a lot of that pressure. That certainly was a key against Seattle and Kansas City.

Bakhtiari is the left tackle. He injured a knee during the preseason and I’m not sure he’s all the way back. He’s given up two sacks and, based on PFF’s numbers, he’s allowed 15 total pressures after giving up 29 all of last season.

The Packers are third in the NFL in rushing, averaging 136.2 yards per game, and have been consistent with their rushing attack gaining at least 123 yards on the ground in every game so far. What’s been the key to Green Bay’s success on the ground this season?

The same reason that Rams coach Jeff Fisher said when asked why his pass rush is so good. Personnel.

The success is a continuation from last year, when the Packers fielded one of the top rushing attacks after the bye. Sitton, Lang and Linsley form one of the top interior trios in the NFL. Eddie Lacy is an elite running back and James Starks is one of the better backups. Throw in Rodgers’ passing threat and his ability to get the offense into the best play at the line of scrimmage, and the credit really goes to everyone on offense. Impressively, Green Bay ranks second with 18 runs of 10-plus yards. On top of that, Lacy converted a pair of fourth-and-1s with ease last week.

How has this Packers defense developed into one of the best units in the NFL? What’s made the difference for them?

I’m going to preface all of this with the fact that Russell Wilson is the best quarterback they’ve faced, which means Nick Foles might be their biggest challenge of the season.

It starts with stopping the run. Never mind the league rankings for a minute. Green Bay has held Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles and Carlos Hyde to a combined 111 rushing yards the last three weeks. The defensive line has been tremendous. Nose tackle B.J. Raji, who missed last season due to injury, has dominated the middle the past three weeks. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels is unblockable at times. Letroy Guion, who returned from suspension last week, does everything pretty well. And situationally, Mike Pennel can stop the run and Datone Jones can get after the quarterback.

Really, Green Bay’s defensive renaissance started last season, when Clay Matthews moved into a part-time role at inside linebacker as a way to fix a horrendous run defense. Matthews is almost an every-down inside linebacker now due to Sam Barrington’s season-ending ankle injury. Against Seattle, he didn’t play a single snap at his usual outside linebacker position. The past two weeks, he’s moved to the line of scrimmage in the dime package and recorded three sacks.

So, coming full circle on this question, the Packers have stopped the run on first down and created a bunch of third-and-longs. With a tremendous pass rush (17 sacks, tied with St. Louis for second in the NFL), opponents have converted 9-of-32 third-down opportunities the last three weeks.

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