GREEN BAY—Of the many things Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers appreciates about his position coach, the subtle reminders Alex Van Pelt gives him on gameday are at or near the top of the list.
Like this past week.
"We always talk before the game, and I say, 'Hey, what've you got for me?'" Rodgers said on Wednesday. "He said, 'Don't forget about the checkdown,' and sure enough, I hit about 10 of them during the game."
Quick dumpoff passes to the running backs are a part of any offense, but they're playing a larger role for the Packers of late. Rodgers wasn't exaggerating much regarding the Falcons game.
Eddie Lacy, James Starks and John Kuhn combined for eight receptions for 65 yards this past Monday. Add a couple of times tight end Andrew Quarless caught passes when he slipped out of the backfield and didn't appear to be the primary receiver, and Rodgers was probably right about the 10. A quick flip to Lacy over the middle after a pump fake even produced a short TD.
Using the backs in the passing game more began with Lacy's eight-catch night in New Orleans before the bye, and he now has 23 receptions in his last six games after having just 13 through the first seven contests.
With 36 grabs for 385 yards and four TDs this season, Lacy has already surpassed his pass-catching numbers from last year (35-257-0). Same with Starks, whose 28-yard reception on a wheel route vs. New England was the longest reception of his career.
"Those guys are so in tune this year," Rodgers said of the running backs in the passing game. "They've both improved. They're dialed in on their protections first, and then what their route responsibility is, and running those to get open has been really impressive. It's no surprise they've gotten a good amount of throws out of the backfield.
"It's great when you throw a 2-yard pass and they break a bunch of tackles and turn it into a big one."
It's an approach Rodgers certainly won't forget heading into this week's game at Buffalo, where the Bills feature one of the league's best pass rushes. Three defensive linemen in Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes have combined for 31½ sacks, more than 17 entire teams have compiled this season. Hughes is just a half sack away from putting all three in double figures.
Checkdowns are an effective way to escape a potential sack and still get positive yardage. The initial protection still needs to be there, though, so there's no less responsibility on the Packers offensive line as it prepares for one of its toughest challenges of the season.
"This is why you play the game, matchups like this," guard Josh Sitton said. "It'll be fun."
The Packers defense is looking forward to getting rid of the sour taste from Monday's second half against Atlanta. Members of the secondary said they've corrected their mistakes and have moved on.
"Our whole motto is don't make the mistake again," cornerback Sam Shields said.
Shields admittedly didn't have his best game before being replaced by Davon House in the fourth quarter. Coming off a concussion that forced him to sit out two practices last week, Shields said he felt good physically going into the game, but "the week without preparation, it does take a toll on you."
"I needed a couple reps," Shields said. "That probably would have helped out. But it happens. I'm getting reps this week and I'll be ready for Buffalo."
Shields is no longer on the injury report, but House now is, with a shoulder injury that is undergoing further tests. House said the back of his shoulder landed on Julio Jones' knee when he broke up a pass for Jones in the end zone. House didn't practice Wednesday, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he would not practice Thursday either.
Fortunately, cornerback remains the Packers' deepest position, and McCarthy remained resolute in his view that the defense's coverage struggles for two quarters were not the genesis of a late-season crisis.
"I understand what happened in the second half. I will never apologize for a victory in December, regardless of what it looks like," McCarthy said. "Some of the best lessons you learn in this game are when things don't go right. We'll be a better team because of it."
ADDITIONAL COVERAGE - DEC. 10