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16 Weeks Later, Packers Are Different Team


As the Packers prepare for their rematch with the Chicago Bears this week, there's plenty of speculation that the Packers won't be facing the same team they saw in Week 1.

With the Bears having clinched the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs, there's a possibility they could rest some starters, or not play their starters the entire game, though no one is revealing any specific plans.

But it's worth noting the Bears won't be facing the same Packers team either. Since losing to Chicago 26-0 in the season opener, Green Bay is a different team in many respects.

"They are improved quite a bit," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "They have talent and with good coaches, normally it ends up being a pretty good football team, and that's what they are."

Here's a quick look at how the Packers have changed the most from Week 1 to Week 17:

Experience up front

Back on Sept. 10, three of the Packers' top six offensive linemen were rookies who had never played an NFL regular-season game. But since then, rookies Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Tony Moll have chalked up three dozen starts among them, so there's a lot less "green" in their green-and-gold uniforms.

"I think every guy would tell you he feels like he improved ten-fold," Colledge said. "I don't think anybody is happy with where we're at, and we have to get a lot better. But you look back and watch the old film, and you're like, OK I'm starting to get this, I'm starting to get better, and it's something positive to look forward to."

The starting line also has changed. Colledge didn't start the season opener, and due to injuries to Spitz and Mark Tauscher and one missed game by Chad Clifton (illness), the line has shuffled around plenty since then.

But the primary starting unit of Clifton at left tackle, Colledge at left guard, Scott Wells at center, Spitz at right guard and Tauscher has played five games together now, and the continuity is coming along despite the low point production the past two games.

"I think everybody has made a giant leap forward in their progress and their knowledge of the offense and their ability to work as a unit," Colledge said. "I think we're gelling more and more every week. It's not showing up on the scoreboard, but we feel like we're doing well in the games and we have to get some stuff worked out and finish better."

A different weapon in the backfield

Backup running back Vernand Morency wasn't even a Packer in Week 1, when Green Bay's rushing attack aside from Ahman Green accounted for minus-7 yards. He was acquired in a trade with Houston a few days after the season opener and has posted four games with 69 yards rushing or more.

He's averaging a productive 4.7 yards per carry, with 82 rushes for 384 yards, and he scored his first two touchdowns as a Packer two weeks ago against Detroit on well-executed cut-back runs. He also has 16 pass receptions for 112 yards, an average of 7.0 yards per catch.

"I just feel like I'm a back that can do a lot of things," said Morency, who added he doesn't get caught up in the fact that he'll be playing in his first Packers-Bears game. "Whenever my number is called, I just try to go out there and perform."

{sportsad300}A new look on the defensive line

Three weeks ago, the Packers began moving Cullen Jenkins from defensive tackle to defensive end on running downs to beef up the run defense and to rest end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila for pass-rush situations.

The results have been positive, and Jenkins now has started the past two games at defensive end. It's one factor in the Packers' defensive resurgence, during which they have allowed 246 yards, 13 first downs and no touchdowns over the past eight quarters.

Improving young linebackers

In the season opener, rookie linebacker A.J. Hawk was making his first NFL start, while second-year pro Brady Poppinga was making just his second start and coming off major knee surgery in the off-season.

Hawk has progressed as expected, and after posting the fifth-most total tackles (five) and 10th-most solo tackles (three) on the defense in Week 1, now leads the team in both categories with 145 total tackles and 104 solo.

Meanwhile Poppinga has made perhaps the most noticeable progress, particularly in pass coverage after giving up five catches for 77 yards to Chicago tight end Desmond Clark in the first meeting.

"I feel like a new man," Poppinga said, comparing how he feels as an NFL player now compared to 3 1/2 months ago. "I've come a long way but there's a long way still to go.

"I've made some big strides, just basic fundamentals of playing football -- footwork, and being able to see what transpires in front of me. The basics is the biggest thing I think I've improved on, and those things really are what I need to help me make the next step."

It's anyone's guess how much Clark, as a key performer in the Bears' passing game, will play in the rematch, but Poppinga is looking forward to the challenge of facing him again.

And the same can be said for the entire team.

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