Receivers are expected to take short passes and create substantial gains, or take longer passes and turn them into big plays.

That’s starting to happen a lot more of late for the Packers, and it’s coming at the right time amidst the late-season playoff push.

Following their bye week a little less than a month ago, the Packers ranked just 15th in the league in yards after the catch (or ‘YAC’), with 991. For a team that finished in the top six in the league three of the last four years, with better than 2,100 yards after the catch in each of those three seasons (No. 2 in 2006, No. 1 in ’07, No. 6 in ’09), it was looking like a down year in the category.

But over their last three games, the Packers have climbed six spots in the league rankings, all the way up to No. 9 at 1,527. That’s a big jump to make this late in the season, but the Packers don’t look at it as doing anything special. It’s the way things are supposed to work.

“The great thing about our offense is we feel like just doing the little things well, being accurate, being precise with our route-running, can lead to big plays,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “That’s kind of what you’ve seen, yards after the catch. We’re not trying to really trick anybody, we’re just kind of running our stuff and making big plays out of it.”

Consider some of the offense’s biggest plays over the last three weeks:

At Minnesota in Week 11, Greg Jennings caught an 11-yard stop route near the sideline, spun away from his man at the 35-yard line, made one move on the safety and was gone for a 46-yard touchdown.

At Atlanta in Week 12, Jennings turned a similar short route into a 35-yard catch-and-run with good blocking from his teammates. In that same game, Brett Swain caught a 3-yard slant, burst through two tacklers and was off to the races for a 31-yard gain.

Finally, vs. San Francisco this past Sunday, running back Brandon Jackson took a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage, read his blockers and turned it into a 37-yard play. Then, Donald Driver made the most impressive ‘YAC’ play of the season, and maybe his career. Wide open with the 49ers busting a coverage, Driver caught a pass from Rodgers at the San Francisco 37-yard line, dodged three tackle attempts at different intervals and then dragged multiple defenders across the goal line for an unforgettable 61-yard touchdown.

The Packers have piled up 536 yards after the catch over these last three contests, or 57 percent of Rodgers’ 943 passing yards in those games. That’s in stark contrast to the YAC accounting for just 43 percent of Rodgers’ 2,300 passing yards prior to the bye week.

Moreover, three weeks ago, the Packers had no players ranked in the league’s top 25 individually in YAC. But now there are two – Jennings at No. 20 (336 yards) and Jackson at No. 24 (325).

Another three-game stretch of 500-plus YAC could move the Packers into that top half-dozen in the team rankings again, where they’re accustomed to sitting. It’s a dimension of the offense the Packers feel can help separate them from others down the stretch.

“It comes down to winning your one-on-one matchups, making plays, and making the best of your opportunities,” Jennings said. “It starts with ‘80’ (Driver) and trickles down to the youngest guy over here in Brett Swain. That’s just our mindset.”

It’s a collective one, because it takes a collective effort.

“It has always been my belief that yards after the catch is everybody’s responsibility and not just the guy with the ball in his hands,” receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said. “You can see that you have some guys that are exceptional at it, some guys are good and some guys it’s not that bad. We’re fortunate to have a bunch of guys that are pretty good at it.

“(But) it’s not just the ball carrier. The ball carrier is a big part of it. He’s got to make that first guy miss while everybody else is rallying up to get in position to get a block.”

MAC Attack
Detroit’s Ford Field is the annual site of the Mid-American Conference championship game, which for 2010 was played just last Friday, when Miami (Ohio) defeated Northern Illinois.

So perhaps it’s only fitting that the Packers are following that up by bringing a substantial contingent from the MAC into Sunday’s game with the Lions.

Eight of the 53 players on Green Bay’s roster hail from the MAC, including three from Central Michigan – defensive end Cullen Jenkins, linebacker Frank Zombo and cornerback Josh Gordy.

The other MAC alums are receiver Greg Jennings (Western Michigan), offensive lineman T.J. Lang (Eastern Michigan), linebacker Diyral Briggs (Bowling Green), tight end Tom Crabtree (Miami) and running back James Starks (Buffalo).

“There are a lot of guys from our conference who are out here,” Zombo said. “We can put out some good guys.”

Back on the field
Safety Atari Bigby returned to practice on Thursday, on a limited basis, for the first time since injuring his hamstring in Week 11 at Minnesota. Bigby was in full pads going through drills and, according to McCarthy, also took a share of scout-team snaps during team work.

“We just tried to control what segments of practice that he went through,” McCarthy said. “But he looked good, particularly in the opponent scout reps that he was taking.”

More on injuries
Left tackle Chad Clifton (knees, concussion) remained limited in practice on Thursday but was dressed in full pads, and McCarthy doesn’t foresee him having any issues getting ready to play on Sunday.

There was no further update, however, on cornerback Charles Woodson, who sprained his ankle in Wednesday’s workout. Woodson went through the opening jog-through portion of practice but was not in pads and left the field after that. He was classified as limited in practice for the second straight day.

“Tomorrow is a big day, as we know,” McCarthy said.

The rest of the Packers’ injury report remained the same as Wednesday. Driver (hand) and Swain (knee) were full participants. Safety Nick Collins (shoulder), linebacker Clay Matthews (shin) and defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) were limited again. Cornerback Pat Lee (ankle) and safety Anthony Smith (ankle) continued to sit out.

For the Lions, running back Jahvid Best (toe) and linebacker Isaiah Ekejiubah (knee) were upgraded to limited participants on Thursday, while tackle Gosder Cherilus (knee) and receiver Derrick Williams (ankle) were downgraded and sat out.

The rest of Detroit’s injury report stayed the same, as receiver Nate Burleson (hamstring) was a full participant, defensive end Cliff Avil (quadriceps), receiver Calvin Johnson (groin) and linebacker DeAndre Levy (groin) were all limited, and quarterbacks Shaun Hill (right finger) and Matthew Stafford (shoulder) continued to sit out.

Additional coverage – Dec. 9