GREEN BAY – Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will run the scout team in practice this week, Head Coach Mike McCarthy confirmed on Monday.
Rodgers returned to practice last Saturday for the first time since breaking his collarbone in mid-October. As a player designated to return from injured reserve, he’s first eligible to play in next week’s game at Carolina.
That leaves Brett Hundley running the first-team offense in practice this week to prepare for Green Bay’s trip to Cleveland, so Rodgers’ practice reps will come as the “Browns quarterback” against the Packers’ first-string defense.
“They wear red shirts, so obviously scout-team work is something he will do,” McCarthy said. “It’s important for him to feel the pass rush and get acclimated.
“We’ll be in pads on Thursday, so we have to identify exactly what we want to get done there. That’s why we call it trial return. He’s not cut loose to go full in practice where he’s able to do everything.
“Medical clearance will not be an option until next week.”
If Rodgers is cleared next week, presumably via an image of his surgically repaired collarbone, he could start taking first-team snaps in practice to prepare for the Panthers game on Dec. 17.
In the meantime, he’ll probably be the best scout-team quarterback ever seen in a regular-season practice in Green Bay. Rodgers has run the scout team in training camp at times before.
“An extremely competitive guy going out and trying to win every play,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said of what he expects to see. “With how competitive he is, it’s going to make it fun.”
McCarthy hasn’t said whether Rodgers’ return to real action hinges on the Packers staying alive in the NFC playoff race. What is known is at 6-6 at the three-quarter pole, Green Bay has no margin for error.
Sunday’s 26-20 overtime victory over Tampa Bay to get back to .500 wasn’t the prettiest, but McCarthy re-emphasized how a team’s prospects improve when it can find different ways to win.
A deflected punt on special teams, a defensive touchdown amongst seven sacks, plus a strong running game and two clutch offensive drives got the job done against the Buccaneers.
That said, special teams had a penalty wipe out a long return, the defense struggled against the run and the screen game, and the offense had three straight three-and-outs in the second half as a seven-point lead turned into a three-point deficit.
McCarthy pointed to “awareness and technique” as the focal points against screens, which were a big reason the Buccaneers converted 9-of-16 (56 percent) on third down.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tampa Bay naturally turned to the screen because of the consistent pressure on the quarterback, but the Packers only defended a couple of them well.
“You need good outside-in, inside-out leverage,” Capers said. “We had the screen called at times and alerted the guys to play the screen.”
Green Bay’s offensive struggles on third down (1-for-6 in the third and fourth quarters) contributed to a 74-53 difference in total plays and a 10-plus-minute discrepancy in time of possession.
Hundley completed just 13 passes for 84 yards, Jordy Nelson didn’t have a gain longer than 6 yards, and Randall Cobb didn’t have a ball thrown his way.
Hundley’s game-tying and game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime “says a lot about him,” McCarthy said, and getting the win was the bottom line. But finding a rhythm and reliable production remains a priority.
“He knows he has things to work on … and how important these games are,” McCarthy said. “We’re not creating enough opportunities for our perimeter guys.”
The ground game could see more of a 1-2 punch with rookies Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones now that Jones is back from a knee injury and busted his lone carry Sunday for the game-winning 20-yard touchdown.
Williams is well north of 400 combined rushing and receiving yards over the last 3½ games, while Jones had a pair of 100-yard rushing games before his injury.
The possibilities of using the two in tandem are intriguing, to say the least.
“They’re very instinctive runners,” McCarthy said. “They’re vertical runners. They don’t waste time. You don’t see them dancing in the hole. They do a good job accelerating and hitting the crease.
“The offensive line likes to block for those kind of guys. It makes them play faster.”
The Packers need to find another gear as the final quarter of the season begins this week with the road game at Cleveland.
Green Bay needs to win out and get help to have any realistic shot at the playoffs. As for the help against teams like the Falcons, Panthers and Seahawks, McCarthy said, “Frankly, it doesn’t matter.”
Neither does Rodgers’ pending return right now, because it’s all about winning the next game.
“We’re 6-6,” McCarthy said. “We need to be at seven wins when we get on that plane coming back from Cleveland.”