CHICAGO – Which will end first, the Green Bay Packers’ winning streak or their hard-luck run of injuries?
One seemingly doesn’t lend itself to the other.
Yet here are the Packers at 5-1, winners of five straight after their uncharacteristic season-opening blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints and losing players two and three at a time, week after week.
“It definitely doesn’t make it easier, that’s for sure,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said after Sunday’s 24-14 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
The latest to join the injury list were:
Center Josh Myers, who suffered a left knee injury on the fourth snap of the game
Outside linebacker Preston Smith, who managed only eight first-half snaps before succumbing to an oblique injury
Safety Darnell Savage, who suffered a concussion on the first play of the second half
None of them returned.
At least the initial diagnosis on Myers wasn’t a torn ACL given that LaFleur said the medical staff does not believe it’s a season-ending injury.
The list of players already out before Sunday read like part of a Pro Bowl roster: outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, cornerback Jaire Alexander, cornerback Kevin King, left tackle David Bakhtiari and receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling among them.
LaFleur’s first two teams in Green Bay were pictures of health, at least by NFL standards – especially in 2019, when a four-game turf toe absence by Davante Adams was the only significant injury to speak of. Even 2020 was manageable.
Injuries have already forced the Packers to play five players whom general manager Brian Gutekunst added after training camp began. A couple of them who played on Sunday weren’t on their roster last month: cornerback Rasul Douglas and linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Even before the three in-game injuries on Sunday, the Packers were reeling, especially on defense. Their most impactful player, Za’Darius Smith, played 18 snaps in the season opener and hasn’t been on the field since because of a back injury that required surgery. In consecutive weeks this month, they lost two of their top three corners, Alexander and King, both to shoulder injuries. Alexander went on injured reserve, while King was inactive on Sunday.
LaFleur and his defensive staff picked Isaac Yiadom, acquired in a training camp trade, to start in King’s place against the Bears alongside first-round pick Eric Stokes. They ditched that plan after Yiadom struggled on the first series, which resulted in a Bears touchdown, and gave Douglas his first reps since he was signed earlier this month. Douglas ended up playing 49 of the 57 defensive snaps. Savage’s injury meant Henry Black’s snap count went way up, playing 35 snaps.
It almost got worse when defensive tackle Kenny Clark was slow to get up after a play in the second half.
“When he was down, I really thought I was going to throw up,” LaFleur said. “But, he, you know, all those guys, it’s a credit to our defensive staff getting those guys ready to play but also all those players stepping in and being able to perform.”
It was better on offense to start thanks to the return of Elgton Jenkins, the Pro Bowl guard who had been filling in at left tackle while Bakhtiari’s ACL rehab continues. But then Myers went down, and Lucas Patrick came off the bench and went the rest of the way. Patrick started in place of Myers a week earlier against the Bengals because Myers was out with a hand injury. Each week, there have been questions about who would start at which spot on the offensive line.
Aaron Rodgers has been without his deep-threat receiver, Valdes-Scantling, the last three weeks.
And the last thing LaFleur needed to see was Aaron Jones diving into the end zone – and getting hit in mid-air – at the end of his 12-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the third quarter.
“Once I got to the sideline, I apologized to everybody,” Jones said. “It won’t happen again.”
Perhaps the only thing that matters is that the Packers' quarterback has his health, but it’s the first time in LaFleur’s tenure that injuries might become an issue.
There could be relief on the way. Valdes-Scantling is eligible to come off injured reserve this week. At the same time, Bakhtiari could be activated off PUP and begin practicing even though there’s almost no chance he would play Sunday against Washington after being out since Week 17 of last year.
“It's nice to be 5-1 and be banged up and have won five in a row,” Rodgers said. “But we gotta get healthy as we move forward against an important stretch coming up.”