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Dougherty: Packers overcame injuries to win in 2010, but there's one key difference this season

GREEN BAY - This week Aaron Rodgers likened the 2021 Green Bay Packers to their 2010 Super Bowl team in one specific way.

“This season is beginning to remind me a little bit of a season over a decade ago,” Rodgers said, “where we’ve had a number of injuries and in the course of the season added certain pieces to the mix that ended up playing a big role down the line. I think you guys can imagine what season I’m talking about, which is a good thing.”

Yes, this year’s Packers are on wrong side of the injury ledger, just as they were in 2010.

Rodgers also is right that in-season additions played key roles in helping that 2010 team win the Super Bowl, most especially the midseason waiver claim of defensive tackle Howard Green. He put their defense over the top by shoring up their shaky play stopping the run.

That team also got needed mileage out of street free agent Erik Walden at outside linebacker, and you can even throw in rookie running back James Starks, who came off  PUP late in the year and seemingly out of nowhere provided a badly needed run threat during their playoff run.

Similarly this year, general manager Brian Gutekunst has signed several players in-season to try to mitigate the damage from his team’s spate of injuries, most notably linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback Rasul Douglas and, this week, pass rusher Whitney Mercilus. It very much remains to be seen whether any of them, or even all collectively, can do for the Packers’ defense this year what Green alone did for it in ’10.

But while the Packers’ bad run of injuries this season brings to mind 2010, it’s important to note the problem with injuries is less the number of players hurt as the quality, as well as who replaces them.

If you look at the number of serious injuries the 2010 Packers suffered, it’s staggering. By season’s end they had 16 players on IR, and that included six starters: Jermichael Finley, Mark Tauscher, Nick Barnett, Ryan Grant, Morgan Burnett and Brad Jones.

There are some good players on that list, but when you break it down, the net loss wasn’t that great.

Finley, for instance, was a great talent and off to a strong start – he averaged 14.3 yards on his 21 catches – before a knee injury ended his season in Week 5. But the Packers were so stacked with receiving weapons – Greg Jennings, James Jones, an ascending Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver – it didn’t matter. The Packers didn’t even miss Finley.

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Tauscher was as solid as they come at right tackle, but former general manager Ted Thompson had drafted Bryan Bulaga in the first round that year. When Tauscher’s season ended in Week 5, the Packers plugged in Buluga and were just fine.

It also turned out that the losses of Barnett and versatile backup Brandon Chillar hurt not a bit because of the Packers’ uncommon depth at inside linebcker. In fact, as sometimes happens in the NFL, Barnett’s replacement in the starting lineup, Desmond Bishop, proved to be the better player by that point in their careers.

Burnett was a promising rookie safety, but with Nick Collins hitting his prime and playing at an All-Pro level, all the Packers needed was an assignment-sure player opposite him, and they had that in backup Charlie Peprah.

The loss that hurt them most was Grant at running back – he tore his ACL in the opener after rushing for 1,253 yards the year before. Their run game was an issue all season. Finally, though, Starks took over as primary back for the playoffs, and while he wasn’t as good as Grant, he was good enough.

More importantly, the Packers still had their handful of most crucial players. Rodgers, Charles Woodson (until the end of the first half of the Super Bowl), Clay Matthews, Collins, B.J. Raji, Greg Jennings and Tramon Williams were all still standing.

Contrast that with this year.

It’s true that much like in ’10, it seems every week the Packers have been hit by another costly injury or two. Two weeks ago at Cincinnati, for instance, they were without three starters on their offensive line (David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins and Josh Myers). And last week at Chicago two of their better defensive players (Darnell Savage and Preston Smith) exited with in-game injuries, and coordinator Joe Barry’s defense finished the game with a patched together nickel defense that included three backups in the secondary (Chandon Sullivan, Henry Black and Douglas).

The rules for IR are different now – in ’10, landing on IR meant a player was out for the season, now anyone put on IR once the regular season begins can return after three games. So the Packers having eight players on IR after only six games doesn’t mean much in and of itself. Only three of them are finished for the season, and none is a starter: Randy Ramsey, Will Redmond and Chauncey Rivers.

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The Packers’ problem this year is they’ve lost some of their most important players. Jaire Alexander is an elite cover man, and the drop-off at cornerback behind him is huge. Za’Darius Smith is a top-10 outside rusher in the league; losing him is like the ’10 Packers playing without Matthews.

The Packers also have no one else on their roster to stretch defenses like receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (IR, hamstring), who is one of the best deep threats in the game. At least his injury (hamstring) is relatively short term.

The Packers’ offensive line has done well to withstand left tackle Bakhtiari’s absence to start the season, and then the loss of Pro Bowler Jenkins for three games along with rookie center Myers, who is out again this week because of a knee injury. The depth on their line has been huge. But Bakhtiari’s return from PUP, whether in a couple weeks or a month, is important. They’re going to need him when they face top pass rushers in money games in January.

Regardless, the Packers’ injury problems as they stand now are worse this year than in ’10, for one reason: In Alexander and Za’Darius Smith, they’re missing two of their most important and hardest-to-replace players.

Now, both might return this season. If Alexander doesn’t need surgery on his shoulder, he’ll be back at some point, though coach Matt LaFleur has said the team’s medical staff hasn’t ruled out surgery. As for Smith, the Packers appear to think he has a chance to return from back surgery near the end of the regular season. But that, too, isn’t a given.

No one on the Packers’ injury list in that incredible ’10 run compared to these two. LaFleur’s Packers would face a big challenge to win the Super Bowl without either. Without both, well, never say never, but that would be a mighty high mountain to climb.

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