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Packers' Depth Will Be Tested Versus The Browns

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Head coach Mike McCarthy will have his work cut out for him over the next few weeks with his team ravaged by injuries. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.
Head coach Mike McCarthy will have his work cut out for him over the next few weeks with his team ravaged by injuries. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.

The Green Bay Packers are going through their worst injury streak in years. The injury bug hasn’t just bitten, it’s sunk its teeth in, ripped flesh apart and completely devoured this team. This Sunday’s showdown with the Cleveland Browns will be the ultimate test of Green Bay’s depth.

The surge of injuries started early for the Packers, with Bryan Bulaga and DuJuan Harris being placed on Injured Reserve before the regular season started. Casey Hayward has yet to play in the 2013 regular season (though it sounds as if he may go Sunday).

But the loss of those three players has already proven to be not as significant as initially thought. David Bakhtiari stepped in for Bulaga and has played just about as well as a rookie fourth-round pick could. After James Starks, Johnathan Franklin and Eddie Lacy all turned in impressive 100-yard rushing performances, it turns out running back is one of the deepest positions on this team. And the combination of Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Davon House and Micah Hyde at cornerback has somehow made fans feel not so urgent to get the 2012 rookie phenom Hayward back on the field.

Now, with a slew of more injuries, the depth of this team will yet again be put to the test.

Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the two starting outside linebackers, are both out. Top backup Mike Neal also hasn’t practiced yet this week (as of Friday morning), and his status remains in question. If he can’t go, two rookies will be the only ones able to play at the position – sixth-round pick Nate Palmer and the undrafted Andy Mulumba. The two have combined for 82 career defensive snaps.

It’s not much better for the linebackers on the inside. Starter Brad Jones is likely to miss his second straight game, and his backup, Robert Francois, was recently put on IR. Jamari Lattimore played very well in first career start, and he will need a repeat performance. Behind Lattimore and A.J. Hawk is only rookie seventh rounder Sam Barrington.

Wide receiver, the position that has by far been the deepest the last few years before 2013, is as shaky as any spot on the roster. Randall Cobb is gone for eight weeks, and James Jones has yet to practice. If Jones is out, Jordy Nelson will be the only trusted receiver. Jarrett Boykin would be the number two guy, and he struggled mightily to get on the same page with Rodgers at Baltimore. The third stringer would be Myles White, who was just promoted from the practice squad and has never played in a regular season game. That’s all the receivers there are on the active roster.

Of course, Jermichael Finley can used primarily as a receiver, but that takes away from tight end depth, which also isn’t 100 percent with Ryan Taylor having recently undergone knee surgery.

And while no starters have been hurt on the offensive line, backup center Greg Van Roten is now on IR. Should something happen to Evan Dietrich-Smith, this line could be in absolute shambles.

In the past, this is what has made the Packers the Packers. They faced a similar injury crisis towards the beginning of the 2010 season, when they went on to win Super Bowl XLV. Several key players went on IR by season’s end, including Ryan Grant, Morgan Burnett, Nick Barnett and Finley. In their absence, original second- and third-stringers stepped up, like James Starks, Charlie Peprah, Desmond Bishop and Andrew Quarless. Some excelled, while others did just well enough. But collectively, the Packers depth came through and was good enough to win a Super Bowl.

That is important to remember. Jarrett Boykin doesn’t need to go on a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown pace from here on out. Andy Mulumba doesn’t need to rack up double-digit sacks. Jamari Lattimore doesn’t need to become a Pro Bowl linebacker.

They don’t need to be world beaters. The offense is still run by Aaron Rodgers, and the defense is still loaded with talent in the secondary and on the defensive line.

The hardest part of the schedule is over with. The next two weeks in particular feature a Browns team that is 0-3 when Brandon Weeden starts and the 1-4 Minnesota Vikings, who are undergoing a quarterback change. As long as the backups play just well enough for everything to run smoothly, the Packers will be fine. This Sunday will be the first real test, and might be rough. It’s time for the second- and third-stringers to carry their weight.