GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The best quarterbacks raise the play of those around them, and that is why this might be Aaron Rodgers' best season.
His coach, Mike McCarthy, certainly thinks so. You can't argue with the statistics, either, as Rodgers pieces together an offense that could be missing three of its top skill position players Monday night when the Bears travel to Lambeau Field.
Wide receivers Randall Cobb (injured reserve, designated to return with a broken leg) and James Jones (knee) have been out, and tight end Jermichael Finley's career is in question as he recovers from a bruised spinal cord.
Enter Jarrett Boykin, Myles White, Andrew Quarless and the NFL's third-ranked rushing offense as the Packers (5-2) sit a half-game ahead of the Lions and a game up on the Bears in the NFC North.
Asked about the emerging rushing attack, Rodgers chuckled. The Packers have ranked in the top half of the league running the ball only once since he became a starter in 2008 -- 14th in 2009. They were 20th last year, 27th in 2011 and 24th in 2010 when they won Super Bowl XLV.
Rookie Eddie Lacy and veteran James Starks, once nearly a Bear, have the Packers suddenly potent on the ground, a clear goal this season as general manager Ted Thompson invested a second-round pick in Lacy and doubled down with Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round.
"It's a combination of Eddie playing really well, our line blocking well and Randall and James being hurt," Rodgers said.
As the Packers have adjusted, so have opponents set on stopping Lacy (446 yards, 4.0 average) and Starks (244, 6.0). With Cobb and Jones sidelined, the Packers have been seeing more single-high safety looks with teams committed to stopping the run by putting an extra defender in the box. In the past, it has been almost exclusively Cover-2 and two-man, and this new wrinkle dares Rodgers and his unproven receivers to go to work.
"They're making us win one-on-ones now," Rodgers said. "I'm not sure how they are going to respond now. If they stick with that plan, we have to win those battles."
So far, the Packers are winning on all fronts. Boykin, who went undrafted last year out of Virginia Tech and was cut by the Jaguars before the Packers scooped him up, has 13 catches for 192 yards in the last two games.
"Jarrett is a great kid," Rodgers said. "He came here with a very positive attitude. He has a great work ethic, he cares about it and he puts in the time."
White, an undrafted rookie from Louisiana Tech, where he played with Bears right tackle Jordan Mills, was promoted from the practice squad earlier this month. He made five catches for 35 yards in the 44-31 blowout of the Vikings on Sunday night, when Rodgers went 24-for-29 for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Quarless was a fifth-round pick in 2010 and has toiled as a backup while missing all last season with a knee injury.
At a position notorious for busts, the Packers have hit consistently with receivers. Thompson selected Greg Jennings (2005, now with the Vikings), Jordy Nelson (2008) and Cobb (2011) in the second round. Jones was a 2007 third-round pick. All have been elite performers. There are no first-round picks in the mix nor any free-agent additions.
The success is a result of quality scouting and pairing the receivers with Rodgers, who is showing a knack for not just winning but high production with players who seemingly have come out of nowhere. The Packers did not punt against the Vikings. The play-caller, McCarthy, and Rodgers have adapted to the personnel. It's a different world on third-and-6 without Cobb and Finley, but just because the Packers need to view the game differently hasn't changed their success.
"It is a combination of a lot of things," Rodgers said. "We have hit on some guys in the second round and James. That has been great. But once they get here, it is a mindset. They have brought in guys who are really hungry to learn, care about what they do. They take their work home with them.
"The key from our perspective, in the quarterback room, is we want to get the skilled players seeing the game through the quarterback's eyes. We want to get them thinking about the timing of the routes, where they are in the progression, what time they have to be open within the play and when they can expect the football. We've been able to get those guys up to speed quickly."
Nelson is tied for third in the NFL with seven touchdowns and is averaging 16.6 yards per catch. He will be the primary focus for a Bears secondary that has played relatively well against Rodgers over the years but has struggled to beat him.
"Obviously, a great quarterback helps," Nelson said. "The organization has done a great job of getting good receivers. They bring in guys who are going to work hard and listen."
A steady ground game only makes Rodgers more difficult to stop. He's on pace for a career-high 5,008 yards. His passer rating is 108 and he has 15 touchdowns, four interceptions and is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt, the second-highest figure in his career.
Jones should be back relatively soon. The Packers hope Cobb is on the field for the final two or three regular-season games. In the meantime, the offense is humming along.
"It's really shaping up to be one of Aaron's best years," McCarthy said. "Aaron has had a lot of challenges Monday through Saturday that don't show up on a stat sheet. Just the changes and trying to get on the same page with younger players. Trusting the game plan.
"When you are as productive as we've been, there was such a comfort with our no-huddle and we really felt that we were rolling on all cylinders. So we had to go a different direction and he has to command it."
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