Aaron Rodgers Injury: A Survival Guide for the Green Bay Packers

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst INovember 5, 2013

A shortlist of the NFL's most irreplaceable players would have Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at or very near the top. 

One of the game's transcendent players, Rodgers possesses the kind of arm talent, mobility and football IQ that is rare both in the sport's past and present. His collection of skills have allowed him to be a Super Bowl and regular-season MVP, and the Packers have rode his elite abilities to championship contender status in every season since 2009. 

On Monday night, Green Bay got a strong taste of how difficult life will be without Rodgers for an extended period of time. 

On the final play of the Packers' first series, Chicago Bears defensive end Shea McClellin sacked Rodgers and drove the quarterback's left shoulder into the Lambeau Field turf. It wasn't a violent, dirty or freak play. In fact, the sack was about as common as tackles come in the NFL. 

Yet Rodgers winced in obvious pain getting up and coming off the field, and he later jogged into the locker room for further observation. He didn't return from the bowels of Lambeau until the third quarter, long after the Packers had ruled him out of the contest. 

The initial diagnosis is that Rodgers will miss multiple weeks. 

During his weekly radio show with Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers confirmed that he has a broken left collarbone but that no timeline for his return has been established. 

If Rodgers does miss a significant period of time, the "next man up" mantra of the Packers will be put to its ultimate test. A 5-3 club suddenly faces its most important stretch of games. 

Surviving Rodgers' absence will need to include considerably better play at quarterback, but also continued dominance in the running game and improved effort from a defense that was shredded by the Bears on Monday night. 

Without all the factors working in harmony, the Packers could very well be in trouble while Rodgers is nursing his collarbone back to health. 

Below is a guide for how Green Bay can make it through the next few weeks:

Quarterback Play

Nov 4, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy talks with quarterback Seneca Wallace (9) during the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Packers have long rolled the dice at backup quarterback, but no more so than this season. After giving Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman and Vince Young legitimate shots at winning the job behind Rodgers this past August, Green Bay was forced to settle on Seneca Wallace, a 33-year-old journeyman who became available at the end of the preseason. 

With eight weeks in the offense and close to zero snaps with the first-team offense, Wallace struggled mightily Monday night. 

He completed just 11 of 19 passes for 114 yards and an interception. Four times he took sacks, and eight times Green Bay failed to convert on third down. The Packers finished with a net passing total of just 113 yards, the team's lowest since 2008.

Despite his struggles, Wallace remains a good bet to be the Packers starting quarterback during Rodgers' absence. Green Bay isn't known to panic when injuries strike, and internally the team will feel Wallace can perform better given a full week of practice with the No. 1 offense.  

The Packers won't beat many teams unless Wallace makes big strides. 

While still athletic, Wallace lacks the creative pocket mastery of Rodgers, who routinely makes creating space in and outside the pocket look easy. Rodgers' movements are subtle and measured; Wallace folded against pressure and rarely extended a broken play against the Bears.

The Packers also need Wallace to be much more aggressive down the field. On Monday night, Wallace completed just three passes traveling over 10 yards in the air, and he didn't attempt a pass over 20, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

By the fourth quarter, the Bears were rolling up a safety into the box on every single snap. Without Wallace threatening down the field, defenses will continue to play heavy in the box and light at the back end. 

"Seneca, he needs to perform better, and he'll definitely do that with a week of practice," head coach Mike McCarthy said during his postgame press conference. "We need to do better in the passing game."

Running Game

Without a week of game-planning for Wallace at quarterback, it's difficult to take away much from how McCarthy used his backup Monday night. The Packers likely stuck to a similar plan as the one designed for Rodgers once Wallace entered the game. 

Still, the Packers called designed run plays on 28 of 55 offensive snaps against the Bears.  

In coming weeks, McCarthy's philosophy will likely shift even more toward a run-first offense that uses the threat of Eddie Lacy and James Starks to open things throwing the football. It was mostly the opposite when Rodgers was healthy, with defenses giving the Packers soft fronts to compensate for Green Bay's ability to attack down the field. 

Now, the Packers will need Lacy and Starks to power the offense and provide Wallace with easy, safe throws and the occasional vertical shot play.

Far too many times against the Bears, Wallace was asked to pick up third-and-long situations, and the result was a 1-for-9 showing on the game's most important down. Running the football effectively and consistently will keep Green Bay ahead of the sticks.

The threat of play action also helped Wallace at times Monday night. According to PFF (subscription required), Wallace was 5-of-7 for 69 yards and a 102.1 passer rating when using a play-fake. Without it, he was 6-of-12 for 45 yards and an interception. His passer rating dipped to just 24.7. 

The Packers appear to finally have a running game capable of holding up a so-so passer for a stretch. 

Lacy has rushed for an NFL-high 545 yards over the last five weeks, and Starks has looked as explosive in the last two weeks as any other time in his injury-plagued career. Overall, Green Bay is second in the NFL in rushing at 148.6 yards per game. 

A majority of that production came when teams were still playing soft in the box to combat Rodgers. With Wallace under center, eight-man fronts are going to become more and more common. The task now at hand is continuing a dominant start running the football when defenses know its coming. 

Get Back to Playing Defense

Green Bay's defensive effort Monday night was as shocking as it was poor. 

After a five-game stretch of allowing just 280.4 total yards and 20.8 points per contest, the Packers let a Josh McCown-led Bears offense rack up 442 yards and score 27 points. At every level, the performance was unacceptable. 

The pass rush was almost non-existent, the back seven missed tackle after tackle and the secondary was caught out of position on seemingly every other drop back. 

Eventually, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry will return to this defense, and those additions should have a trickle down effect to every level. 

However, one area the Packers must improve in is forcing turnovers; Green Bay has just seven this season (29th in NFL). The Packers have a takeaway in just four of eight games in 2013, and in seven of eight, the defense has provided one or less. Those are substandard numbers for a Dom Capers' defense that has lived off turnovers throughout his tenure as defensive coordinator. 

The takeaway category will only heighten in importance with Wallace under center. To score at a rate comparable to when Rodgers was available, the Packers need to present the offense with short fields and easy scoring opportunities. 

When Green Bay had to go the length of the field Monday night, Wallace really struggled to maintain long, sustained drives. Late in the game, it appeared all that could save the Packers would have been a mistake from the Chicago offense. 

GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 04: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers returns to the field after a colar bone injury which occurred in the first half of the game against the Chicago Bears during the game at Lambeau Field on November 04, 2013 in Green Ba
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

For the first time in over two decades, the Packers are approaching a stretch of games in which their elite quarterback won't be available. In order, Green Bay will face the Philadelphia Eagles (4-5), New York Giants (2-6) and Minnesota Vikings (1-7). If Rodgers is out longer than three weeks, the Thanksgiving Day game against the 5-3 Detroit Lions will feature someone else at quarterback. 

Until his return, the Packers will have to find a way to survive in the playoff hunt without one of the game's best players.

Green Bay will bank on Wallace playing considerably better given necessary preparation. Any ability to tread water without Rodgers will certainly rely on Wallace making big strides over his 2013 debut.

Continued excellence from the running game and a return to pre-Monday night defense are also big keys to survival. 

More than likely, Green Bay will need all three to work together to get through Rodgers' absence with a good shot at the postseason.  


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