GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As the Green Bay Packers' injury list has grown this season, I've been saving the panic button for two occasions. The first is so obvious that I don't think I need to mention it. (Follow this link if you must.) The second was a little more subjective: If one more offensive lineman, regardless of his identity, limped off the field.
That moment came with 6 minutes, 42 seconds remaining in the second quarter Sunday at Lambeau Field. Right tackle T.J. Lang sprained his ankle, and the Packers were forced to break the emergency glass and insert one of the two undrafted rookies they are using as backup linemen these days. You would have been justified at that point to expect a jailbreak from the Minnesota Vikings' talented defensive line, but instead you saw one of the more impressive feats of the Packers' season.
The Packers secured their 23-14 victory over Minnesota largely by running the ball down the Vikings' throat behind an offensive line that was missing 40 percent of its Week 1 lineup. Rookie replacement Don Barclay was critical to that effort, and by the end of the game, the Packers were running at will, often behind Barclay and right guard Josh Sitton. It was a reminder of how resourceful the Packers have been in winning six of their past seven games, a topic we've discussed before, and it has the Packers once again atop the NFC North with four games left to play.
"We're dropping all over the place and every guy has to step up," defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "That's the kind of year it's been, and what that kid did for us today was big. I can't imagine what kind of team we would be if we get completely healthy."
The Packers might never find out. But if there has been a positive consequence to their spate of injuries, it has been the weekly adjustments they've been forced to make from their usual winning script.
Sunday, coach Mike McCarthy adjusted his play-calling noticeably at halftime after having quarterback Aaron Rodgers drop back 24 times in the first half amid only 12 running plays. McCarthy limited the opportunities Brian Robison had to rush against Barclay by calling 20 running plays against 17 dropbacks in the third and fourth quarters. Of those 20 running plays, eight were off right tackle behind Barclay and one resulted in a 22-yard touchdown run by tailback James Starks.
"I thought Don did a good job," McCarthy said. "Actually, I thought the confidence in the play-calling reflected that. … After halftime, we just really played a basic, clean football game. … It was nothing unusual. We took a couple shot plays, but it just came down to being balanced with the run and the pass."
Barclay got a decent, if technically imperfect, block on Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson on that Starks touchdown run. I don't know if he played well enough to give McCarthy reason to consider moving Lang back to left guard when he is healthy, but Sunday he performed a task every winning team needs. He answered the bell.
"A couple of plays probably weren't as pretty," Barclay said, "but every play I was out there fighting my butt off and that's what it's all about."
The Packers finished with 152 rushing yards, their second-highest total of the season. Starks and Alex Green combined for 27 carries, the most by the Packers' primary ball carriers this season.
Given how they opened the game, dropping back on 24 of their first 36 plays, I'm guessing the Packers weren't originally planning to grind it out. But when it came time to protect a 20-14 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, they pulled off a remarkable 18-play drive that consumed 11 minutes and left the Vikings trailing by two scores with four minutes remaining.
On that drive, the Packers took one downfield shot -- a 33-yard pass to receiver Randall Cobb on third-and-12 -- but otherwise worked the ball downfield on runs and short three-step drops by Rodgers. You can't do that without an offensive line that is blocking well.
"That was great," Barclay said. "We were chipping them away and wearing them down."
This week, anyway. How will the Packers win next time? We'll all have to tune in to find out.