NFL Nation: D.J. Smith

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When you're a draft-and-develop team like the Green Bay Packers, hitting on less than half of your draft choices probably isn't good enough.

Joyce
McMillian
But after cutting second-year safety Jerron McMillian on Tuesday, general manager Ted Thompson's percentage from the 2011 and 2012 drafts combined dipped below 50 percent.

"You never want to give up on a young guy," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said shortly after McMillian was released.

But that's exactly what the Packers did with McMillian, a fourth-round pick in 2011, and several others from the 2011 and 2012 drafts.

Of the 18 players Thompson picked in those two years combined, only eight remain with the Packers. And only six of those are on the active roster. Randall Cobb, a second-round pick in 2011, is on injured reserve/designated to return. Casey Hayward, a second-round pick in 2012, is on injured reserve.

Because Thompson believes in the theory that the more swings you have at the plate, the better your chances of finding good players, his percentage might be a little bit lower than a team that simply picks every time their turn comes up rather than trading back to acquire more picks.

But look at Thompson's 2010 draft, for example. He made only seven picks, and all are still with the Packers, although first-round pick Bryan Bulaga is on injured reserve.

Here's a player-by-player look at the 2011 and 2012 drafts:

2011 (Total players selected: 10. Players still with the Packers: 4)
  • T Derek Sherrod (first round, No. 32 overall): Returned to the roster last month after nearly two years on the physically unable to perform list because of a broken leg he sustained Dec. 18, 2011. Played his first snaps on offense since his injury Thursday against the Detroit Lions and likely will compete for a starting job next season.
  • Cobb
  • WR Randall Cobb (second round, No. 64 overall): Budding star who led the Packers in catches (80) and receiving yards (954) last season but sustained on leg injury Oct. 13 and was placed on temporary injured reserve. He is eligible to return Dec. 15 against the Dallas Cowboys but has not been cleared.
  • RB Alex Green (third round, No. 96 overall): Sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament as a rookie and despite coming back to lead the team in rushing with just 464 yards in 2012, he was released in the final cuts after training camp this season.
  • CB Davon House (fourth round, No. 131 overall): A part-time starter for the first time this season but has allowed five touchdown catches this season, according to ProFootballFocus.com
  • TE D.J. Williams (fifth round, No. 141 overall): Caught just nine passes in two seasons before he was released in the final cuts after training camp this season.
  • G Caleb Schlauderaff (sixth round, No. 179 overall): Traded to the New York Jets on Sept. 3, 2011 for a conditional draft choice that ended up being a seventh-round pick in 2012.
  • LB D.J. Smith (sixth round, No. 186 overall): Started the first six games of the 2012 season but tore his ACL and was released this past April.
  • LB Ricky Elmore (sixth round, No. 197 overall): Cut at the end of training camp in 2011.
  • TE Ryan Taylor (seventh round, No. 218 overall): Has become one of the team's core special teams players.
  • DE Lawrence Guy (seventh round, No. 233 overall): Spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve and then was on the practice squad in 2012 until the Indianapolis Colts signed him to their active roster.
2012 (Total players selected: 8. Players still with the Packers: 4)
  • LB Nick Perry (first round, No. 28 overall): Has battled injuries each of his first two seasons but has been a starter when healthy.
  • DE Jerel Worthy (second round, No. 51 overall): Played a part-time role as a rookie before he tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. Came off PUP last month and has played in one game this season.
  • CB Casey Hayward (second round, No. 62 overall): Led all rookies with six interceptions last season but a recurring hamstring injury limited him to just three games this season before going on injured reserve.
  • Daniels
  • DT Mike Daniels (fourth round, No. 132 overall): Perhaps the best player from this draft class. Daniels has become a force as a pass rusher with 5.5 sacks this season, which is second on the team to Clay Matthews.
  • S Jerron McMillian (fourth round, No. 133 overall): Began the season as the starting strong safety but was released Tuesday after being phased out of the defense for poor play.
  • LB Terrell Manning (fifth round, No. 163 overall): Released in the final cuts at the end of training camp this year. Played only sparingly, mostly on special teams, as a rookie.
  • T Andrew Datko (seventh round, No. 241 overall): Released in the final cuts at the end of training camp this year. Spent his rookie season on the practice squad and was never on the active roster.
  • QB B.J. Coleman (seventh round, No. 243 overall): Released in Week 1 after Seneca Wallace was signed to be the backup quarterback. Spent his rookie season on the practice squad.

Chargers begin to revamp

September, 1, 2013
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A day after setting the 53-man roster, new San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco went to work, adding depth to a roster that needs to get deeper.

Telesco started with the defense. The Chargers acquired defensive tackle Sean Lissemore from Dallas for a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick. Lissemore adds to a thin position. He is a good fit for the 3-4 defense. The fourth-year player could be a rotational player.

The Chargers also signed linebacker Reggie Walker. He was previously with Arizona where he played for new San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and new San Diego special-teams coach Kevin Spencer. Walker is known for being a strong special- teams player. That’s vital. The Chargers were awful on special teams in the preseason.

To make room for Lissemore and Walker, the Chargers reportedly cut linebacker D.J. Smith and put defensive tackle Damik Scafe on injured reserve.

Running back Edwin Baker, cut by San Diego, signed with Denver’s practice squad.

Random thoughts on the San Diego Chargers' 33-28 loss at the Chicago Bears on Thursday night:

There’s no getting around it: San Diego’s first-team offense was awful.

It’s the preseason and I have never been an August alarmist, but the problems that plagued San Diego in Chicago are the same issues that sabotaged the team in recent years. They were the reason why new head coach Mike McCoy was brought in.

San Diego looked good offensively against Seattle last week, but it was a disaster on Thursday night. The first-unit offense committed four turnovers (backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was on the field with the rest of the starters for one of them).

Quarterback Philip Rivers threw an interception and lost a fumble on a sack. Turnovers have been a problem for Rivers the past two years. He also hasn’t gotten much protection. That was an issue again Thursday night as Rivers was sacked three times in three series. That’s ridiculous, but it’s nothing new.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers was sacked every 11.9 times he dropped back to pass last season -- the worst rate in the NFL. The pace was much higher in this game. It has to get better or the Chargers and Rivers will falter regardless of the good work McCoy and his staff are doing.
  • Max Starks started over King Dunlap at left tackle. Dunlap started last week and has been the starter most of camp. Dunlap played the second drive and is considered the favorite to win the job. Starks was beaten badly on a play Rivers was sacked and where he lost a fumble on the third drive. The performance could go a long way in giving Dunlap the job.
  • Guard D.J. Fluker, the No. 11 overall draft pick this year, has struggled in pass protection, but has been awesome in run-blocking. That’s the book on him as a rookie.
  • Running back Ryan Mathews looked good. He ran hard and had 45 yards on nine touches. He will be fine if he can finally stay healthy.
  • Whitehurst had a solid night. He completed 9 of 13 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns. He improved from last week and his performance in Chicago quieted talk that he could be replaced as the backup.
  • Rookie quarterback Brad Sorensen was also good as he went 8-for-14 for 127 yards and a touchdown.
  • The first-team San Diego defense was decent, considering all the turnovers it had to deal with. The unit has some holes, but it’s further along than the offense at this point.
  • The Chargers have been beyond shaky on special teams in two preseason games. They were alarmingly bad in all phases at Chicago. McCoy believes the team will be better in the regular season because of injuries. Guys are playing who won’t be in a few weeks.
  • Rookie receiver Keenan Allen's chances of winning the punt-returning job decreased when he badly muffed a punt and it was recovered by Chicago. Can’t do that, rookie.
  • Running back Danny Woodhead did not play as he comes back from an undisclosed injury. He is expected to make his preseason debut next week.
  • Second-year tight end Ladarius Green had a touchdown catch for the second straight game and he totaled five catches for 78 yards for the night. He is showing he may be a factor this season.
  • Former Green Bay linebacker D.J. Smith continued to look good for San Diego.
  • Key backup cornerback Johnny Patrick was shaken up.
  • Undrafted rookie safety Jahleel Addae continued to make a push to make the 53-man roster.
  • Detroit is reportedly signing defensive tackle Justin Bannan. The Chargers had interest in him earlier this summer and could still use depth on the defensive line.

Solid night in San Diego

August, 9, 2013
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A few thoughts on the Chargers’ 31-10 home loss to Seattle on Thursday night:

All in all, it was a positive night for the Chargers. Only in the preseason can that be said about a three-touchdown loss at home.

The Chargers’ backups were throttled Thursday night. We all know the Chargers are not a deep team. If the injuries continue to pile up, it will be a problem. But the good news is the Chargers' first-stringers looked strong against a very good team in Mike McCoy’s first preseason game.

Sure, teams want to see the entire program do well. But if you had to pick one unit to look good, of course, it would be the frontliners. San Diego hung well with Seattle’s first-stringers. San Diego led 3-0 after the first quarter.

The focal point of the McCoy regime, quarterback Philip Rivers, looked great. He completed 5 of 6 passes and led the Chargers on a 12-play drive that resulted in a field goal. The first-string offensive line, the biggest question mark, did well and running back Ryan Mathews ran with a purpose.

Defensively, San Diego held a potent Seattle attack to no scores on two drives. Key newcomers Dwight Freeney and Manti Te'o both were active.

Rookie receiver Keenan Allen got some action as a punt returner. Expect him to be a big part of the team as a rookie.

Safety Sean Cattouse, linebacker D.J. Smith and tight end Ladarius Green stood out as depth players.

Backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst struggled as he threw two interceptions. But rookie Brad Sorensen, who was up-and-down in camp, had a nice day. He was 7-for-10 and connected with Green on a 31-yard touchdown.
The San Diego Chargers did some pre-draft veteran shopping Thursday by signing linebacker D.J. Smith.

He was cut by the Green Bay Packers on Wednesday.

Smith, 24, is an intriguing player for San Diego, which could use some help at inside linebacker. Smith, a third-year player, started the first six games of last season before tearing his ACL. There were reports last month that there is no guarantee he will be ready for the start of the 2013 season. The Packers cut him with the failed physical designation.

Smith played in every game as a rookie. Still, it is a worthwhile signing for the Chargers. He has ability, and he should regain his health at some point in the 2013 season, Smith could be a player to watch in San Diego.

Meanwhile, as expected, San Diego receiver Danario Alexander signed his restricted free-agent tender.
The Green Bay Packers indirectly answered one of our spring questions with a relatively surprising announcement Wednesday evening: They released linebacker D.J. Smith, a promising young player who started nine games over two seasons and was recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last October.

The move helps explain why the Packers re-signed linebacker Brad Jones to a three-year contract earlier this spring, a deal that will pay him at least $4 million in 2013. Jones figured as a backup linebacker and special-teams player if the rest of the Packers' linebacker crew were healthy, but that does not appear to be the case.

We can only assume that Smith's injury was more serious than originally thought, so much so that the Packers doubt if he will play again. If you remember, this is about the time last year when the Packers released left tackle Chad Clifton and safety Nick Collins because of health reasons.

Perhaps there is more going on here than we know. But absent the presumed severity of Smith's injury, I can't think of another reason to release a third-year player who by all accounts had impressed coaches before the injury. Smith was going to count $580,788 against the Packers' 2013 cap, a pittance that I highly doubt was part of this decision.

Chances are that Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk will be the Packers' starting inside linebackers when training camp begins, but Jones now figures as a more important reserve, and perhaps a hedge against Bishop's own recovery from last year's torn leg muscle. Indeed, rare is a team that will pay $4 million to a special teams-only player.

Note: The Packers also released running back Brandon Saine, who coincidentally also tore his ACL in the same game as Smith -- Week 6 at the Houston Texans.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each NFC North team thus far this offseason:

Chicago Bears: Sometimes it's the move you don't make that stands out. The Bears were in a tough spot with guard Lance Louis, who was having the best season of his career in 2012 when he tore an ACL. Unfortunately for both sides, the injury occurred in the final year of Louis' contract. It's generally not typical NFL practice to commit on a long-term contract to a player rehabilitating from an ACL injury. But Louis has a good-enough resume for another team to take a free-agent chance, and the Miami Dolphins offered a one-year deal worth $1.6 million. Louis' presumed replacement, Matt Slauson, will make about half of that total in 2013. We'll see whether the difference between in performance between the two players, if any, is worth the cash and cap savings.

Detroit Lions: It's difficult to classify the return of safety Louis Delmas as an "under-the-radar" move, considering his success when he has been healthy the past four years. But the way the Lions went about the process reflected confidence and an understanding of the market. Knowing he had struggled to complete last season because of a knee injury, the Lions sat back as Delmas took two free-agent visits. The chances of another team's making a lucrative offer to an oft-injured safety were not high. So after Delmas visited the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers, the Lions signed him to a deal that will be lucrative only if he plays a full and healthy season in 2013.

Green Bay Packers: This isn't the most active time of year for general manager Ted Thompson, but at least one relatively quiet move bears continued inspection. Linebacker Brad Jones received a three-year contract that will pay him at least $4 million in 2013. That's a big total for a player who projects mostly as a special teams contributor unless starters are injured. It makes you wonder whether the Packers are concerned about the recoveries of one or more of the following linebackers: Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith and Nick Perry. If the Packers aren't planning for Jones to play regularly on defense in 2013, it's difficult to understand the contract figures.

Minnesota Vikings: Re-signing fullback Jerome Felton was all but a requirement after the impact he made on Adrian Peterson's historic 2012 season. As we've discussed, Peterson averaged about twice as many yards per carry out of a two-back set as he did when he ran without a lead blocker. Fullbacks aren't used by many teams and aren't heavily pursued in free agency, but the Vikings made sure to avoid a defection by giving Felton a $2 million signing bonus and total compensation of $3 million for 2013.
It appears the Green Bay Packers have now addressed two of the three major salary-cap issues they faced when the offseason began.

Last month, they released defensive back Charles Woodson rather than absorb his $10 million cap figure. On Friday, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette and others, the Packers restructured the contract of linebacker A.J. Hawk. The last remaining decision lies with tight end Jermichael Finley, who is due a roster bonus of about $3 million at the end of this month and is currently counting $8.75 million against the cap.

We don't know the details of Hawk's new contract, but there is a pretty good chance it included a pay cut to help reduce a 2013 cap number that had been $7.05 million. Hawk had been scheduled to earn $5.45 million in cash this season, but it's only fair to point out that he earned $15.9 million over the first two years of a contract he signed just before the 2011 lockout began.

Some of us wondered if the Packers would release Hawk outright, considering that both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith are expected to be back in 2013 after suffering season-ending injuries last season. But assuming full recovery from two players is at least a calculated risk, making Hawk a more than reasonable insurance policy. When we get the final numbers in a few days, we'll know how solidly he is in the Packers' 2013 plans.

INDIANAPOLIS -- I sat in on the Manti Te'o news conference Saturday afternoon. After all, you could argue that three of our four teams in the NFC North are in the market for an inside/middle linebacker in the 2013 NFL draft. A fourth, the Detroit Lions, could conceivably draft him as a strong-side linebacker who eventually moves back into the middle.

So my eyes lit up for a moment when Te'o revealed that the Green Bay Packers were one of the first two teams he has formally met with here at the NFL scouting combine. Injuries sidelined two of the Packers' inside linebackers last season, Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, and the San Francisco 49ers exposed what was left of their depth chart in the divisional playoffs.

But it's important to remember that the Packers (and Houston Texans) are two of 20 teams that will get formal face time with Te'o at the combine. The remainder will have an opportunity for informal discussions and/or private visits later in the draft process. There is almost no established connection between combine meetings and the likelihood that a team will draft a player.

Te'o said that everyone he has talked to has asked him about the hoax he said he fell for, leading him to believe he was in an online relationship with a woman who did not exist. Indeed, the Packers would be foolish not to ask Te'o about the situation and gauge his response.

To that end, Te'o said he is telling teams "the facts" and summarized his response to them in this way: "I cared for somebody and that's what I was taught to do. Ever since I was young, when someone needs help, you help them out. Unfortunately, it didn't end up the way I thought it would."

Earlier this week, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said his most pressing question for Te'o would be an explanation for his poor performance in the Discover BCS National Championship against Alabama. Was he distracted by the hoax? Physically outmatched? Both? Neither?

Asked if he was distracted in that game, Te'o said, "No." He added: "That's all on me. I played hard, so did my team. But Alabama had a great game plan and so did we. They just executed it better than we did."

The Vikings' middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley, is a pending free agent. So is strong-side linebacker Erin Henderson. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears might be seeking a long-term replacement for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

Before that can happen, NFC North teams must determine if they can trust Te'o. Do they believe his story? Or do they think he is continuing to perpetuate a lie? Now is the time to find out.

"They want to be able to trust their player," Te'o said. "You don't want to invest in someone they can't trust. Everybody here, they're just tying to get to know you. They're trying to get to know you as a person and a football player.

"It could be a hurdle but it could also be an opportunity to show how you really are. That's the way I have approached it and it's been a big learning experience for me."

For what it's worth, I thought Te'o handled the news conference well. If he performs the same way for teams in interviews here, he will go a long way toward putting this unique story behind him.
Charles Woodson, AJ Hawk and Jermichael Finley Getty ImagesThe Packers could save a combined $20.5 million against the 2013 salary cap if they parted ways with Charles Woodson, A.J. Hawk and Jermichael Finley.
Another in a series of important offseason issues facing NFC North teams:

We have detailed the deep list of expensive contracts the Green Bay Packers must extend to retain some of their core players, from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to linebacker Clay Matthews to defensive lineman B.J. Raji. That conversation leads to the inevitable question: Where will the Packers find the salary-cap space to absorb their presumed deals?

At the start of the offseason, ESPN's John Clayton reported the Packers had $7.1 million in salary cap space. Salary cap figures are fluid this time of year for accounting reasons, but speculation has centered around two and perhaps three players whose cap figures could make them targets for offseason moves.

Defensive back Charles Woodson, linebacker A.J. Hawk and tight end Jermichael Finley are scheduled to count a combined $25.8 million against the Packers' 2013 salary cap. Releasing them before June 1 would save $20.5 million, but none of those Big Decisions are simple.

We'll start with Finley, whose upcoming $3.5 million roster bonus means his status must be determined in the next two months. (The money is due on the 15th day of free agency, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) The Packers were reportedly fed up with Finley's approach at midseason, but coach Mike McCarthy spoke glowingly of his progress earlier this month. You would have to question the wisdom of releasing a 25-year-old playmaker as he presumably approaches a greater level of maturity.

Finley is due to count $8.75 million against the 2013. Releasing him before his roster bonus is due would save $8.25 million against the cap. Perhaps a contract adjustment could be forthcoming, but you wonder if the Packers would reconsider any decision they might have made last fall about his status for 2013. Finley remains a unique and valuable player even if he hasn't reached the elite levels the Packers once envisioned.

Woodson and Hawk represent different situations. Woodson will turn 37 during the 2013 season and will count $10 million against the cap. It's not unprecedented for a player of his age to account for so much cap space, but it would require a unique commitment from the Packers to do it.

The Packers, of course, got a preview of post-Woodson life in 2012 after playing nine games without him while his fractured collar bone healed. During that time, rookies Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian developed and filled the hybrid cornerback/safety role the Packers once envisioned for Woodson. Rodgers has campaigned for Woodson's return, but business is business. Releasing him would save $10 million against the cap. We'll find out exactly how much the Packers value Woodson's leadership and experience.

Hawk's contract, on the other hand, doesn't provide the opportunity for a huge cap savings. He is set to count $7.05 million against the 2013 cap, but releasing him would create a modest $2.25 million savings because $4.8 million in pro-rotated signing bonus would accelerate. The Packers could wait until after June 1 to release him and push a portion of that acceleration into 2014, but that would only delay the crunch.

That makes Hawk as much of a football decision as anything. On the one hand, the Packers need to do something to elevate their run defense, a role inside linebackers are critical for. But without Hawk, the Packers would be assuming the healthy return of two players -- Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith -- who suffered season-ending injuries in 2012. All indications are that Bishop and Smith will return, but in essence the Packers can use Hawk as a $2.25 million cap insurance policy. It might be worth it to them.

All told, the Packers have the opportunity to save $20.5 million in cap space if they release Woodson, Finley and Hawk by mid-March. It's a Big Decision, to be sure.
The Seattle Seahawks added defensive end Chris Clemons and kicker Steven Hauschka to their injured reserve lists this week.

Rookie Bruce Irvin, the 15th overall choice in the draft, will start in Clemons' place. Recently signed veteran Ryan Longwell will handle kicking duties for Hauschka.

Those moves led me to compile IR lists for remaining NFC playoff teams. I used the reserve lists at Ourlads.com, which updates its rosters daily.

By the bye: Green Bay Packers

November, 10, 2012
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Reviewing the Green Bay Packers at their bye:

Record: 6-3

Nine-game capsule: The Packers have put themselves in the thick of playoff contention after an unexpected and unsettling 2-3 start. Their final-play loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3, on what surely was the last call made by a replacement official for as long as the NFL exists, could have been a season-defining moment. Instead it has become an afterthought. (Unless and until it impacts the Packers' postseason standing, of course.) The Packers have reeled off four consecutive victories since an Oct. 7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. A slew of injuries, however, has changed the complexion of this team and suggests it might need to grind out victories like never before.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Kevin Reece/Icon SMIAaron Rodgers and the Packers have overcome injuries and a few difficult losses to remain in the NFC playoff chase.
MVP: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the first to acknowledge he hasn't played at the same historic level he did last season. In his most recent game, last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Rodgers couldn't so much as complete 50 percent of his passes. But it would be difficult to identify a player more responsible for putting the Packers back on track. His six-touchdown performance against the Houston Texans, coming a week after the Colts loss, redirected the season. During the winning streak, he has 15 touchdown passes and one interception. That's a ratio of one touchdown pass for every six completions, which is actually higher than his completions-touchdown ratio last season (1:7.62). Finally, Rodgers has taken on a larger leadership role during the injury absence of cornerback Charles Woodson. He has the Packers exactly where they would hope to be in Week 10: With a good enough record to challenge for the NFC North title during their final seven games. Runner-up: Receiver James Jones, who has helped the Packers overcome injuries to other receivers by catching eight touchdown passes, tied for the most in the NFL, while not dropping a single pass thrown his way. Honorable mention: Receiver Randall Cobb, who has emerged with five touchdowns in the past three games, and leads the team with 45 receptions.

Biggest surprise: Tight end Jermichael Finley, once touted as a key to the Packers' high-flying hopes, has largely disappeared from the offense. He has averaged 9.3 yards on 29 catches and hasn't scored since Week 1. There would seem to be big plays available to tight ends in the Packers' offense, as evidenced by backup Tom Crabtree's scoring plays of 72 and 48 yards, but Finley isn't making them. He has dropped anywhere between four and seven passes, depending on the statistical service you reference, and has seen his playing time dwindle from 86 percent of the Packers' snaps in Week 1 to 50 percent in Week 9. He has no reported injuries and is still only 25 years old, which suggests his previous production can still be drawn out of him. At the moment, though, it doesn't appear the Packers have much confidence in Finley.

Stat to note: Through nine games, the Packers have lost 40 starts from players who either opened the summer atop the team's depth chart or replaced those who have been hurt. Some of those injuries have been short-term, but the Packers are looking at returning from their bye without four starting linebackers -- Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. As well, they won't have right tackle Bryan Bulaga, running back Cedric Benson, receiver Greg Jennings, and Woodson, at least not right away.

Bonus stat to note: The Packers' defense is on pace to shave 900 yards off the record-setting total of 4,796 passing yards it allowed last season. Moving Woodson to safety in the base defense, and injecting six rookies into the regular rotation, has given the defense new energy and bodes well for continued improvement in the second half.

Looking ahead: The Packers have the sixth-most difficult schedule remaining in the NFL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They have five division games remaining, including a potential title-clinching game Dec. 19 at the Chicago Bears, and will play two of their final three games on the road.

By the bye series: Our post on the Detroit Lions is here and the Chicago Bears is here.

Packers are 'finding ways to win'

November, 4, 2012
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Tom Crabtree AP Photo/Mike RoemerBackup tight end Tom Crabtree's 72-yard touchdown helped the Packers pull away from Arizona.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers extended their winning streak to four games Sunday at Lambeau Field, entering their bye with a 6-3 record that puts them squarely in the NFC's playoff race. You might not believe me, however, if I told you how.

The Packers lost three more starters to injury, one of which caused a reshuffling of their offensive line. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed less than 50 percent of his passes for only the fourth time in his career, saying afterward that his best play was a second-quarter fumble recovery. The Packers scored a touchdown when two receivers inadvertently flipped their assignments, and another came when backup tight end Tom Crabtree got behind the Arizona Cardinals' defense for the Packers' longest play of the season -- a 72-yard (!) catch-and-run that accounted for the final score of a 31-17 victory.

That turn of events in no way matches the blueprint this team has used in past success, and it wasn't what the Packers intended for 2012, either. But there are times in a season when it doesn't matter how or why you win. The Packers just completed one of those stretches, and here is the bottom line: Only five of the NFL's 32 teams have a better record than the Packers.

"We're finding ways to win," receiver James Jones said. Added defensive tackle Ryan Pickett: "We've got some fighters. We've got a lot of fighters. Guys are going down. Guys are stepping up. It shows we have a lot of character. We're not missing a beat. We can't wait to get all of our players back, but our guys are playing real good."

The Packers haven't missed a beat in terms of winning percentage, but they're clearly not functioning at the same level as in their Week 6 domination of the Houston Texans -- when this run of injuries largely began. Sunday, the Packers had receiver Jordy Nelson for less than a quarter before he departed with an ankle injury. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip) left in the second quarter, forcing T.J. Lang to move to right tackle and elevating Evan Dietrich-Smith to left guard. Linebacker Clay Matthews, meanwhile, appeared to injure his hamstring early in the game and departed for good in the third quarter.

Rodgers threw four touchdown passes, including a 13-yarder to Randall Cobb in the first quarter after Cobb and Donald Driver switched their assigned spots at the line. Overall, however, Rodgers completed only 14 of 30 passes and said: "I was just off today."

The offense couldn't manage a first down on its first four series of the second half, allowing the Cardinals to creep to within 24-17 after trailing 21-7 at halftime. But the Packers of late have been like a downhill stream, flowing wherever gravity will take them, and on Sunday they produced a play that for me was symbolic of this winning streak.

Rodgers had targeted Crabtree on only five passes over the Packers' first eight games, but on Sunday they put him in position to capitalize on a play they had been setting up all afternoon. The Packers set season highs with 176 rushing yards on 39 carries, a balance that caught the Cardinals' linebackers off guard when Rodgers faked a handoff to running back Alex Green on the final play of the third quarter.

The play-action allowed Crabtree, also lined up in the backfield, to slip past linebacker Paris Lenon on a seam route. Crabtree spent the next 45 yards looking over both shoulders for a Cardinals defender to catch him. None did, giving Crabtree the longest catch by a Packers tight end in 33 years.

"That's kind of my mentality, I guess," Crabtree said. "I'm not going to get many opportunities. When I do, take advantage of them. We have a lot of guys like that on the team."

There's no doubt about that, but at the same time, it's only fair to point out the Packers picked up half of their victories in this streak against the Cardinals, who have lost five consecutive games, and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are now 1-7. My sense is the Packers realize they are fortunate to be have minimized the damage of what could have been a season-ending run of adversity. After all, here is the list of players who were unavailable to them at the end of Sunday's game: Bulaga, Matthews, Nelson, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Cedric Benson, Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry and John Kuhn.

"We're not ones to make excuses," Rodgers said. "But we'll be happy to get some of those guys back."

The Packers were much healthier, in fact, during their 2-3 start. They should be especially proud of their past month. But the season is about to get much tougher, with five of their six division games coming in a stretch that begins Nov. 18 at the Detroit Lions. I'm not convinced, and I don't think the Packers are either, that they can get where they want to go by replicating the past month. They won't get away with a completion percentage of less than 50 percent or needing a 72-yard touchdown from their backup tight end to clinch a game.

"We had some adversity earlier in the season," Rodgers said. "We've taken some heat and pulled us together. We went on the kind of run we needed to go on. We've had four big wins before the bye, and now we have to get healthy. We've got a lot of guys we can add back to the mix.

"We could really take off."

The Packers have given themselves a chance to have a chance. After the past month, they couldn't have asked for anything more.

Remember when I told you I would be away from the blog for a bit while navigating the Chicagoland rain to Soldier Field? That plan got delayed a bit by the news, first reported by Jay Glazer of Fox Sports, that Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson will miss six weeks because of a broken left collarbone.

There was no mention of Woodson's injury during or after the Packers' 30-20 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, although he did not play on the final series, as Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette points out. Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com noted that Woodson grabbed his shoulder and writhed on the ground while defending receiver Brandon Gibson late in the fourth quarter.

Woodson injured his left collarbone, the same one that he injured in Super Bowl XLV. It's not clear if his latest injury is as serious; six weeks is on the low end of a return timetable for a fully fractured collarbone. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Woodson will miss at least a month.

Regardless, there are a handful of indispensable players on the Packers' roster, and Woodson is one of them.

The Packers have done well to find workable alternatives for injured linebackers Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith and Nick Perry. The Packers also have managed the losses of nose tackle B.J. Raji, receiver Greg Jennings, running back Cedric Benson and cornerback Sam Shields, much as they did during their run to the Super Bowl in 2010. But even if Woodson is no longer in his playmaking prime at age 36, he is still a unique and valuable rock amid the transition the Packers' defense has undergone this season. It will be impossible to replace the veteran leadership and versatility Woodson has brought.

Woodson might have only one interception and five defensed passes this season, but he has played the fourth-most snaps (95.9 percent) on the defense this season after safety Morgan Burnett, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Tramon Williams. Along the way, he has made the transition to safety in the base defense while working as a slot cornerback in the nickel. That means the Packers will have to replace him with different people in multiple packages. Either M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian will take his place at safety, and then the Packers will have to choose between Davon House and Jarrett Bush at cornerback as long as rookie Casey Hayward is filling in for Shields.

Just as important, Woodson has once again joined with quarterback Aaron Rodgers to provide the Packers with locker-room leadership as strong as any team in the NFL.

This sky isn't falling in Green Bay. The Packers have a way of navigating this type of adversity. But this injury will hurt more than most. Charles Woodson sits at the soul of this team, and for the moment it's empty.

Coach Mike McCarthy is scheduled to speak with reporters at 4 p.m. ET. I will check back in when I arrive at Soldier Field.

Packers sifting through injury mess

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
7:09
PM ET
Before I run out of gas on what has been what I'll call Sonday -- a Sunday that never really ended and has bled into Monday -- let's review what we know about the Green Bay Packers' long list of injuries and personnel questions stemming from their 42-24 victory against the Houston Texans on Sunday/Monday.

Courtesy the Twitter feed of ESPNMilwaukee.com reporter Jason Wilde:
  • Linebacker D.J. Smith will miss the rest of the season because of a knee injury. Coach Mike McCarthy wouldn't say who will replace Smith in the lineup, but veteran Brad Jones handled the job against the Texans. Another option is Rob Francois, who was a fill-in starter in 2010.
  • Running back Brandon Saine is also lost for the season because of a knee injury. The Packers have already placed him on injured reserve and claimed running back Johnny White on waivers to replace him. Saine had strictly been a special-teams player this season.
  • Linebacker Nick Perry (knee) and cornerback Sam Shields (shin) don't appear to have long-term injuries. We'll find out Wednesday if they're going to practice this week.
  • McCarthy said second-year player Alex Green will remain the Packers' primary runner, answering our question from Sonday's Free Head Exam. McCarthy: "I was very pleased with Alex Green. Alex Green will be our lead running back."
  • If Shields needs to miss time, it's fair to assume that rookie Casey Hayward will take his place in the starting lineup.

OK. Barring more breaking news, I'll be back with you Tuesday morning.

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