In face of injuries, Packers thrive thanks to unearthed talent

What's been most remarkable about Green Bay's push to the NFC Championship Game on Sunday isn't the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers or that of a defense that is downright frightening.

It's an examination of the roster.

Besides having 10 key players on injured reserve, Green Bay not only has found ample replacements, the Packers have molded those players into key contributors who not only could help it to a Super Bowl, but re-establish the core for years to come.

A deeper look shows that general manager Ted Thompson, director of football operations Reggie McKenzie and the personnel staff struck gold in finding players like Sam Shields, James Starks and Erik Walden, who will start or play in key rotational roles in the Packers' biggest game of the season Sunday.

Injuries prompted most of these changes and highlighted the discoveries in talent, but deft scouting, drafting and acquisitions kept the Packers from scrambling to simply get through the next game.

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"We don't use injuries as an excuse," Thompson said, offering up a league-wide cliché. "We haven't all season, and we're not going to now --- even though it would be nice to pat ourselves on the back.

"We all worked under (former GM) Ron Wolf, and he taught us how to do this. We don't do anything unique. We have our emergency boards and things like that. We just watch an extraordinary amount of tape of preseason games, because most players on the street, or who might be available, probably played in the preseason but don't have any regular-season experience."

Thompson is downplaying the job that's been done.

There will be six starters Sunday -- including offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, the team's first-round pick, -- who didn't start when these teams first met in Week 3. Walden was on the street then and wasn't back in the NFL until the Packers signed him on Halloween.

In Week 17, the outside linebacker had three sacks against the Bears and has been rock solid throughout the playoffs. Keep in mind, the main reason Walden is at work is because starter Frank Zombo got hurt -- and Zombo was a replacement for Brady Poppinga, who was playing for Brad Jones, a seventh-round pick in 2009. Jones, mind you, became the starter last season after Aaron Kampman went down with a season-ending knee injury.

"It's all about getting an opportunity and capitalizing," Walden said. "Nobody in here wants to be a weak link, and no matter how you get here, you're expected to play well. If you don't, somebody else will."

Although Thompson said the abundance of injuries is part of the game, the number of injuries at singular positions has been staggering. Green Bay has been depleted at safety, outside linebacker and tight end. Plus, it lost starting running back Ryan Grant after Week 1. Have you heard anyone say they miss him -- or safety Atari Bigby or tackle Mark Tauscher or other key players lately?

Ok, tight end Jermichael Finley, but the offense is still clicking pretty well without him.

What can't be overlooked is that having the right players in place at the right time is what the Packers have done to build this roster over the past few seasons, not just in 2010.

Cornerback Tramon Williams -- cornerback-needy Houston signed him and cut him in 2006 -- has arguably been the team's second-best defensive player all season. He had six interceptions in the regular season that helped him earn a Pro Bowl nod and came up with three more in the two playoff victories. The only reason he's starting is that he filled in for Al Harris last season when Harris went down with a knee injury. Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop was drafted in the sixth round in 2007 but sat behind Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar -- both of whom landed on injured reserve this season.

Williams and Bishop are now cornerstones, having signed contract extensions during the season.

"First you have to see some production and know that they're core people," Thompson said of Bishop and Williams. "There are a lot of guys we'd like to have going forward. The problem is you can't keep everybody. They're both guys that we felt strongly that they're good players. They've got an opportunity, and they delivered."

Shields, the nickel back, could be the next player in that pipeline. While he was mainly a wide receiver in college, the Packers loved his athleticism and planned on grooming him for the future after signing him as an undrafted rookie. He was too smooth and so accepting of coaching to hold him back, though. He flashed in the preseason, and they opted to get him on the field right away. He had two interceptions and six passes defensed this season.

"A lot of guys in this locker room helped me, and I wanted to listen and I wanted to play, so I knew I had to step up," Shields said.

That, more than anything, has been the credo.

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The players who've been forced into action not only want to hold up their end, but they're all young and hungry enough to where they want to stick around. Shields said veterans like Williams and Charles Woodson have furthered his development because they noticed his desire and weren't threatened. So they opted to help.

"The credit, and some of this is overlooked, goes to the veterans on our team because they're the ones that keep everybody in the locker room under control and relaxed," Thompson said. "You can get into a panic mode if you're not careful. Guys can start feeling like, 'What are we going to do? The sky is falling,' when you have injuries like we've had. Our veteran guys have been a positive influence in that regard.

"When we brought in new guys they accepted them as one of their own. Coaches coached them up and guys played. And a lot of guys (had) been on the streets (and) didn't know they're supposed to be pretty good players."

That's where things could get even more interesting. Not only have a lot of these fill-in players filled in, they've started to develop. Walden and Zombo look like keepers and Starks, the rookie tailback who has provided a legitimate running threat, definitely has promise.

Though the Packers have the NFC title game to worry about, it's impossible not to look forward and how stacked the talent base could be entering next season when players like Barnett, Grant, Bigby, Jones, and others return from their injuries only to be locked into competition with the guys who took their jobs this season.

"I think it will make for an interesting offseason," Thompson said.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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