GREEN BAY – The Packers are still nine wins away from matching their undefeated start from four years ago, but in just four weeks they may have already won in more different ways than the offensive juggernaut of 2011.
“We can win games on defense. We can win games passing for 200 net yards. We can win games running the football as many times as we throw it,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on Wednesday.
“That’s a great balance you’re looking for.”
The Packers rank third in the league in rushing yardage and 21st in passing yardage, as opposed to third in passing and 27th in rushing four years ago, which helps to make Rodgers’ point. The two-time MVP’s game is different now, too. He does more as a leader and makes more adjustments at the line of scrimmage than he did back then.
If there’s anything missing from this year’s offense, it might be the deep ball, which has been in short supply minus Jordy Nelson.
The receivers aren’t going to get impatient, though, and the long game could always change as Davante Adams (ankle) returns, Randall Cobb (shoulder) gets healthier and rookie Ty Montgomery – who nearly hauled in a deep sideline pass to open last Sunday’s game – continues to progress.
“We just take what the defense gives us,” said receiver James Jones, who has been the most frequent big-play guy thus far, with six receptions of 25-plus yards this season.
“We pride ourselves on breaking tackles, making yards after the catch. That’s how we get our big plays. We’ll just keep working.”
What hasn’t changed is Rodgers’ disdain for interceptions. While he admitted it’s probably not possible to go an entire year without throwing one, he’s enjoying the fact that he’s interception-free through the first four games of a season for the first time in his career.
His counterpart this week, Rams QB Nick Foles, has thrown only one pick so far in 2015, so turnovers might be hard to come by for either team on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Both teams also will bring formidable pass rushes, with 17 sacks each, tied for second in the league. As stout as the Seahawks, Chiefs and 49ers have been up front the past three weeks, the Rams might have the best defensive unit the Packers have faced yet.
The St. Louis defensive line is loaded with first-round draft picks in ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn plus tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers.
Rodgers recalled watching film of Donald last year before the Packers played the Rams in the preseason and being impressed, and that was before Donald, then a rookie, had played in a single regular-season game. He also referred to Brockers as “a stud.”
That interior tandem combined with long-established pros on the edge form a centerpiece any defensive coordinator would love to build around.
“Most teams either have great guys outside or guys that can move the pocket inside,” Rodgers said. “This front four can all get after the passer.”
No better time, then, for the Packers perhaps to get starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga back from his knee injury. Bulaga practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday for the first time since hurting the knee during a Week 2 practice.
How much work he can do in pads on Thursday will probably determine his potential availability for Sunday’s game. Bulaga called it a “day by day” thing, though he has no intention of resting any longer just for the sake of rest.
“Believe me, if I feel ready I’m going to go. I’m not really one to hold back,” he said. “If I feel I’m ready to play, I’m going to do my best during the week to show the coaches that I’m ready and play.”
His linemates expect nothing less.
“He’s that type of guy who’s going to bug the crap out of the trainers to get him back as quick as he can,” veteran guard Josh Sitton said. “He was working his (tail) off in there rehabbing, so it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Neither does the No. 3 ranking in rushing offense that has provided the Packers with their most balanced attack in the Rodgers era. Sitton said it’s the result of the commitment made to that phase a few years back – schematically and with personnel, such as running back Eddie Lacy – and growth and improvement have been steady since.
The Packers are now averaging 136 rushing yards per game, which equals the offense’s single-game regular-season high back in 2011. Against the Rams’ lineup of rushers, that type of ground game might be the best pass protection the Packers can provide Rodgers come Sunday.
“It helps it a ton,” Sitton said. “Anytime a defensive tackle or defensive end is thinking about the run, it’s going to slow that rush down just a half a click, and sometimes that’s the difference in making a big play in the pass game is just that half step.”
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