Can Aaron Rodgers Still Rescue The Green Bay Packers?

The Green Bay Packers are hoping their month in the quarterback desert comes to an end after their Thanksgiving Day game with the Detroit Lions. Aaron Rodgers won’t play on Thursday, but there is hope that with a long week ahead that Rodgers can get back on the field for his team’s final four games. TheSportsNotebook will look at what the Packers have to do to make the most of December.

Green Bay’s defense has come under fire, especially in the last few weeks and they’ve earned the disgust of the fan base. This is a unit that ranks in the lower half of the NFL in points allowed and have done some of their worst work at a time when they were needed most.

The Packers, in spite of getting outside linebacker Clay Matthews back at the same time Rodgers went out, played poorly in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, and then dug the team a 23-7 hole last Sunday against Minnesota.

When Matt Flynn came off the bench and Eddie Lacy kept running hard, and the Packers took a 26-23 lead in overtime of that game, the defense had a chance to redeem itself. Instead, they let Christian Ponder drive the field for a game-tying field goal.

Now Green Bay sits on a 5-5-1 record and this same defense has to deal with Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. For the moment, let’s assume the Packers lose on Thursday to the Lions. Do they have any chance of rallying?

The answer to that question is still yes, as unappetizing as going 0-4-1 without Rodgers (including the Chicago Bears game where he was injured early in the game) would be. Green Bay has been bailed out by their rivals, with the Lions and Bears missing chances and letting the Packers stay in the race.

Green Bay’s worst-case scenario would be trailing both teams by a game and a half with four to go, and a head-to-head game with the Bears still ahead.

If we assume Rodgers in the lineup (and may as well, because if we don’t this entire conversation is pointless), the offense does everything well. Lacey has given the team one of the NFL’s better running games. Head coach Mike McCarthy has done a fine job piecing together an offensive line that was shattered early by injuries and the Packer protection is in the league’s top ten.

Defensively, any kind of turnaround can be built around a pass rush that’s tied for the NFL lead with 37 sacks. What’s more, this has come about with Matthews missing several games. The Packers get a good balanced pass rush where opposing protection schemes can’t key in on a certain player or side of the field.

The problem comes when opposing passers get the ball off. Green Bay is in the lower third of the league in percentage of opposing passes completed and yards per pass. They’re also terrible at getting interceptions. Tramon Williams, the corner whose emergence in 2010 was the missing piece to a Super Bowl defense, has struggled badly.

When you’re getting a pass rush, the coverage has to at least do something well. Either play more aggressively and force incompletions and interceptions. Or back off, and reduce the yardage allowed. Right now Green Bay has two possible results–they either sack the quarterback or watch something bad happen. It’s made worse by the lack of an effective run defense.

Green Bay will come out of Thanksgiving with consecutive road games to Atlanta  (correction: Atlanta is a home game) and Dallas, followed by a home date with Pittsburgh and a season-ending road game in Chicago. If the Packers don’t win on Thursday, they’ll need to sweep those four games, have Detroit lose twice and Chicago would have to lose one additional game. In that scenario, the Packers win the NFC North at 9-6-1 and would go into the playoffs a healthy and dangerous team.

Aaron Rodgers gives a team a chance to win every time he steps on the field, but that’s not an easy schedule the team has in December. Somewhere along the line, the Packers are going to have play some defense, and so far that’s a unit that’s failed every time they’ve had to stand up and be counted.