Dougherty: Packers may have lost much more than just a game

Pete Dougherty
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Sep 23, 2018; Landover, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (96) is carted off the field after injuring his left leg against the Washington Redskins I the second quarter at FedEx Field. The Redskins won 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

LANDOVER, Md. - This was more than just an early-season L on the Green Bay Packers’ record.

They played poorly, no question, in their 31-17 loss to Washington. But that happens to pretty much every team during the long NFL season. Three weeks into this NFL season, only three teams (the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins) are 3-0.

But a team that had been remarkably healthy since training camp — yes, Aaron Rodgers is hurt, but least he can play — finally sustained some hits that will leave a mark.

The Packers have plenty of players on the roster they can be fine playing without. But the injuries to Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle) and Bryan Bulaga (back) are the kind of losses that can erode their team.

It’s probably safe to assume Wilkerson’s season is finished. He had to leave FedEx Field on a cart and reportedly was taken to the hospital during the game.

That’s going to cost a defense that’s short on difference makers. Not that Wilkerson had dominated, but one thing new coordinator Mike Pettine had going for him was a trio of quality defensive linemen (Wilkerson, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark) who formed the core of strong run defense the Packers will need over the long haul of the season. When Pettine needed to stop the run, he could put all three on the field and have a pretty good chance of getting that done. But now Wilkerson is gone.

“Those guys were playing well, playing the run well,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “… The next guy has to step up. It’s really as simple as that.”

Then there’s Bulaga. He left the game late in the second quarter and never returned. And if we learned anything from training camp, it’s that the Packers can’t afford to lose either of their starting tackles for a long stretch, or worse yet, the season.

Jason Spriggs replaced Bulaga on Sunday and couldn’t get it done. He gave up three bad pressures on the first 11 plays of the second half, and a few snaps later had a false start penalty. Especially with a hobbled Rodgers, that’s a big problem. Any game Bulaga misses, coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive plans have to change, and not for the better.

The thing is, the Packers don’t have any good options to replace either tackle. They could move Justin McCray from right guard to Bulaga’s spot, but McCray is much better inside, and regardless, he got hurt Sunday (shoulder) and could be out for a while, too.

The other options are undrafted rookie Alex Light, a left tackle who played little if any right tackle in camp, and veteran Byron Bell, who like McCray should be a guard.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) gets sacked against Washington Sunday, September 23, 2018 at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. Jim Matthews/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

There was no report after the game on the severity of Bulaga’s injury, but if it sidelines him for more than a week or two, the Packers have a real problem. Rodgers doesn’t have the mobility to protect himself with his feet, and defenses will sense blood in the water if Bulaga’s not on the field. Rodgers and McCarthy can’t be real excited about the possibility of playing without their right tackle for even a game or two, though there’s nothing they can say that might help.

“Obviously, we’ll see how (Bulaga and McCray) feel this week,” Rodgers said. “If they can’t go, Byron (Bell) has got to step in, Jason (Spriggs)’s got to step in or Lucas (Patrick) could step in (at guard), and we’ve got to keep rolling. There’s no delays.”

The Packers can’t pin this loss on losing Wilkerson and Bulaga, though. They fell behind Washington while both were still on the field, and it was others’ miscues that cost this game. With a steady rain falling most of the day, Washington didn’t have any problems catching or hanging onto the football but the Packers sure did. Randall Cobb (a fourth-down drop and a lost fumble in the fourth quarter) and Lance Kendricks (drop on a wide-open bomb) had huge mishandles that crashed a Packers fourth-quarter comeback.

And Pettine’s defense put Rodgers in a big hole by giving up 28 points in the first half with the kind of coverage errors that got Dom Capers fired last year.

About the only things the Packers can feel OK about coming out of this one is that Rodgers survived another week playing on his injured knee, and their main rival in the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings, were blown out at home (27-7) by Buffalo, of all teams.

Rodgers said his knee felt no better this week than last, and it was painful watching him trying to elude pass rushers while dragging his leg. But at least he can play. This probably is the way it will be for a couple months.

“I hope (it’s better in a month or two),” Rodgers said. “I really do. It can be painful at times moving around, especially lateral movement, but I’m going to be out there if I’m up to it and try to get this thing back turned the right direction with a win next week.”

If the Packers learned anything from this one, it’s that Aaron Jones needs to get the ball more and earlier. He rushed for 42 yards on six carries in his first game after missing the first two weeks of the season because of a drug suspension.

There isn’t too much more to conclude from the Packers’ 1-1-1 start. They’re in the same boat as most of the league, and the games that will define their season haven’t yet been played.

But chances are, they’re going to miss Muhammad Wilkerson, and they have to be hoping that Bryan Bulaga isn’t out long.


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