If you watched the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, you saw just how hobbled Aaron Rodgers was because of a strained right calf.
The Packers quarterback could slide in the pocket and drift outside without too much trouble. But when he tried to move fast, he couldn’t. He was a shell of himself as a scrambler.
That’s about the same as he looked when he injured his other calf late in 2014. That injury improved a little each week but still was a major limitation in the NFC championship game at Seattle, four weeks after he was initially hurt.
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So that’s what Rodgers might be looking at again for the next month or more if the Packers qualify for the playoffs by winning out and then continue their run deep into the postseason. Keeping him upright and comfortable in the pocket despite his new limitations will be critical to how far the team goes. So it’s a good thing Rodgers has bookend tackles in David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, who are having their finest seasons as NFL players.
That was evident again Sunday against the Bears. Granted, the bitter-cold conditions (minus-4 degrees wind chill at kickoff) at Soldier Field probably worked against pass rushers, who had difficulty getting an explosive first step with the footing uncertain. But that’s only part of the story.
The other part is that Bakhtiari and Bulaga stepped up their games on play after play to help their wounded quarterback comfortably scan the field for open receivers. Most of the day, Rodgers had a clean pocket and room to move a few steps to buy a little extra time.
Rodgers was sacked four times Sunday, but it’s a sign of just how well the offensive line played that it wasn’t responsible for any of them. Three were coverage sacks, including the first, on which a gimpy Rodgers tried to bolt the pocket after not finding an open receiver, but was unable to escape the ponderous C.J. Wilson.
The fourth was on a corner blitz in which Rodgers was responsible for the blitzer. Watching the game video, it looked like Rodgers simply didn’t see unblocked Demontre Hurst in time to get the ball out.
Bakhtiari technically gave up one sack, to Pernell McPhee, but it took about 6 seconds; 2.5 seconds is the generally accepted time in which quarterbacks need to get the ball out or start looking to either leave the pocket or throw it away.
Bulaga basically pitched a shutout.
The play that maybe summed up their day was the one that won the game: Rodgers’ 60-yard pass to Jordy Nelson that set up the game-winning field goal as time ran out.
On the right side, Bulaga stoned the Bears’ sack leader, Willie Young (7½ sacks), on an inside move. Young got nowhere. On the left side, Bakhtiari steered Cornelius Washington inside to help, then mirrored Leonard Floyd, who spied Rodgers rather than rushing. Rodgers had plenty of space to move a couple steps to his left while Nelson worked downfield, then the quarterback launched the ball without anyone in his face.
Just before the start of the season, the Packers extended Bakhtiari’s contract for four years and $48 million, including a $15 million bonus. You always wonder how a player will react to such a big payday. Some get comfortable and have their play slip. Bakhtiari has been the opposite. He’s having his best season in his fourth year in the NFL.
His game is technique and leverage. He has mastered locking his elbow and keeping rushers away from his body. His feet are fairly quick, and he plays with a low center of gravity. His big bucket first step in pass protection leaves him vulnerable to inside counter moves, but his quick hands usually allow him to recover.
Bulaga was something of a question mark coming into 2016. He’d sustained several significant injuries to his legs the previous six years — a fractured hip ended his 2012 season after nine games; a torn ACL ended his 2013 in training camp; and last year surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee that sidelined him for three games.
Though he’s only 27, you had to wonder if the accumulation of lower-body injuries might catch up to him. They have not.
Bulaga is not a finesse or technique player; he’s a brawler. He punishes rushers with his punch and then tries to outmuscle them through the whistle. Occasionally a quick edge rusher will beat him at the snap, but his veteran feel for angles and aiming points usually allows him to recover and push the guy past the quarterback.
One of the foundations of a good offense is having tackles who can protect the quarterback from edge rushers. In the stretch run of the season, the Packers are as strong there as anywhere on their roster. They give Rodgers a chance even though he’s lost his legs as a major weapon.
We saw Sunday what the Packers envisioned when they signed tight end Jared Cook to a one-year, $2.75 million contract: A big target (6-feet-5, 254 pounds) who makes plays after the catch and occupies safeties to help open underneath routes for other receivers.
Two plays Sunday that illustrated that new dimension in the Packers’ offense came on a hurry-up drive that ended with a field goal at the end of the first half. On the first, Cook got the drive going by catching a 5-yard crossing route and turning it into a 21-yard gain. Two plays later he ran an out pattern on which he used his length to reach up and snare a catch for a 12-yard gain.
He played 40 of the Packers’ 61 offensive snaps and had six catches for a 14.2-yard average. He made a difference even when he wasn't targeted.
The Packers’ offense is predicated on quick underneath routes, and Cook’s ability to drive safeties back with his size and speed helps open the middle of the field. That’s what general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy were looking for when they signed him. Now that Cook is healthy, they're getting it.
It’s been obvious this season that 36-year-old Julius Peppers isn’t quite what he was his first two years with the Packers, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a key player from now until their season ends.
He has shown in the last few weeks that he still can summon a big pass rush that can help change a game. On Sunday it was his strip sack and fumble recovery of Matt Barkley on the first play of the second half. Peppers went right around left tackle Charles Leno, Jr., and Barkley had no chance against the blind-side rush.
The Packers limited Peppers’ snaps for much of the season to have him at his best now. Going into the Chicago game, he’d played only 55.7 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, and that was with a recent spike in his playing time because of Clay Matthews’ injuries.
Peppers has answered with a sack in four of the last five games. The Packers will need a few more of those plays in the coming weeks if they’re going to have a special finish to their season.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1