Banged-up Packers adjust, prepare for Browns
Tough run defense. A downhill running game. Timely big pass plays.
The Packers are tweaking their recipe for success.
It's partly by design thanks to an improved defensive line aided by the return of Johnny Jolly, and an offensive line that's leading the way for rookie running back Eddie Lacy.
It may be by necessity, too, with injury-ravaged Green Bay (3-2) relying on rookies or unproven players at linebacker and receiver when the Cleveland Browns (3-3) visit Lambeau Field on Sunday.
No Clay Matthews to rush the passer. No Randall Cobb at receiver. James Jones has been a question mark at midweek, and even if he plays, the wideout may not be 100 percent after getting knocked out of last week's gritty 19-17 win over the Ravens with a knee injury.
"The way our defense is playing right now," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, "it's going to be a different type, potentially a different type of game. It may not be the prettiest sight, but we just care about winning."
The 2011 NFL MVP may want to offer some advice to Brandon Weeden on how to handle criticism, because the Browns quarterback has received plenty this week. Weeden's ugly flip toward fullback Chris Ogbonnaya turned into an interception and has made the social media rounds since last week's 31-17 loss to Detroit.
"He made some decisions last week that I know he would want back," Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. "It's about consistency. He's working at it ... we're going to do everything that we can to give him the best opportunity to succeed."
Five things to watch in Sunday's game:
PATCHWORK PACKERS: Ouch. Besides Matthews, Nick Perry is out a few weeks, too, with a foot injury. Mike Neal, who was replacing Matthews, sat out a midweek practice with a bruised shoulder, leaving Green Bay with rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer taking first-team snaps at outside linebacker.
Browns tackle Joe Thomas was diplomatic even though his job doesn't figure to be as tough with Matthews out for at least another couple weeks with a thumb injury.
"I think when you play a 3-4 team, you end up having to study a lot of guys because you never know who they're going to put out there," Thomas said.
It's especially the case this weekend. At receiver, Jarrett Boykin and rookie Myles White will need to help fill the void for Cobb.
WEEDEN WOES: Weeden has vowed to put the infamous interception behind him. His teammates seem to have his back.
"Winning is a cure-all," he said. "I need to do my part to be more consistent to help this team in whatever way possible."
Getting better in the second half would help. The Browns have led at halftime of all six games, but have been outscored 55-3 in the second half of three losses.
Chudzinski said jumping back into the game "at the same speed you left it" has been one point of emphasis.
RELYING ON ROOKIES: The Packers had 14 rookies on their roster as of midweek, in large part due to the injuries ravaging the team. Mulumba, Palmer and White should get their first shots at extended playing time.
But Green Bay, which operates on a "draft-and-develop" mantra, has had some key contributions from other first-year players. Lacy, a second-round pick out of Alabama, is averaging more than 100 yards over the last two games, while fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari is off to a solid start at left tackle.
TROUBLING THIRDS: The Browns and Texans are the only two teams not to allow a 100-yard rusher or 300-yard passer.
But third downs have been a trouble spot for the Cleveland defense, 29th overall in allowing a 44 percent conversion rate. Chudzinski and defensive coordinator Ray Horton studied up on the problem this week.
Chudzinski didn't get into details about the fix, except by saying it was a combination of schematics and field adjustments.
STOP SIGN: Perhaps no area on the Packers has improved this season as much as the run defense, third in the NFL allowing just 78.2 yards per game. The Browns are 22nd in the league, rushing for 98.2 yards, though they're coming off a season-high 126 last week against the Lions.
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