Aaron Rodgers returns to better version of Packers' offense

Brett Hundley played well enough at quarterback to keep the Packers afloat in the NFC playoff race while Aaron Rodgers was shelved for almost eight full games. Hundley had a ton of help from his offensive supporting cast — the same one that will set up Rodgers to find a better groove in his return.

With Rodgers out, the Packers had to find different ways to move the ball. The 3-4 record in his absence is not great, but in the end, the Packers, now 7-6, fell to opponents above .500 and defeated the bottom-feeders they should have beat.

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Facing the 9-4 Panthers on the road in Week 15 is a tough first matchup for Rodgers in his return. But the quarterback doesn’t need to shoulder as much of a load to get Green Bay a victory.

There were four important developments for the Packers’ offense as they adapted to survive without Rodgers.

— Running back Jamaal Williams’ emergence to backfield dominance

Williams has taken the flashes of Ty Montgomery earlier in the season and fellow rookie Aaron Jones in the middle of the season and put them all together as a more complete feature package. Since scoring at the end of the Lions game on his only carry, Williams has been unleashed as a workhorse back, averaging just fewer than 23 touches over his past five games.

The rushing yards haven’t been easy to grind out, given defenses were stacking up to stop the run and forcing Hundley to pass. But Williams has compensated with an amazing impact as an outlet receiver.

The Packers have remained committed to the run, all the way through the red zone — and in back-to-back overtime victories. In the six games with Rodgers, the Packers ran an average of 22.2 times per game, averaging 4.0 yards per attempt with four rushing TDs. In the seven games Hundley started, those numbers were up to 26.1 and 4.7, respectively, with nine rushing TDs. Granted, some of that is tied to Hundley running more than Rodgers would, but there’s no doubt Williams has been a more effective all-around back than either Montgomery or Jones.

With Rodgers back, Carolina can’t afford to commit an extra defender to the box, and the Panthers are set up to be more susceptible to deep shots off play-action, a concern for a struggling secondary. Consider the Packers averaged only 6.1 yards per attempt with Hundley, down from 7.2 with Rodgers. No. 12 is position to significantly increase his previous number from this season.

— Davante Adams playing like a No. 1 wideout

Jordy Nelson, given his great long-time chemistry with Rodgers, was rendered a receiving non-factor with Hundley. He’s been a blip in the box score even as a possession type for the more dinking-and-dunking Hundley. No Packer will welcome Rodgers more for the sake of his own production and impact.

But at the same time, Adams has revved up his season, sparked by an instant connection with Hundley. Earlier in the year, Adams was doing little damage beyond the red zone. He has become an efficient target monster all over the field, making clutch plays and racking up good yardage after the catch.

In addition, Randall Cobb has looked healthier and has popped up as a Jarvis Landry-like short-catch specialist in the middle of the field. With Adams hot, Cobb being more involved and Nelson an ace in the hole waiting to explode again, Rodgers is set up for more consistent and explosive receiving help.

— Offensive line continuity and stability

Left tackle David Bakhtiari has shaken off early injury issues and has been among the league’s best at his position. Left guard Lane Taylor after missing one game has been sturdier in his second year as a starter. Center Corey Linsley has settled in with his first full-time role, while right guard Jahri Evans has proved to have plenty left in the tank at age 34.

The big concern has been right tackle Jason Spriggs, who was teetering on being a second-year second-round draft bust before being forced into his starting opportunity with Bryan Bulaga lost for the season. Spriggs has been more adequate than a liability, especially with his game-to-game improvement in run blocking.

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Through it all, at least the Packers have not needed to shuffle things up front of late. The blockers have been a more cohesive unit, and the pass protection has gone from shaky to more than acceptable, just in time for Rodgers’ return.

— Rise of defensive playmaking

Clay Matthews and the Packers’ pass rush has come alive, allowing the team to get some key stops, sacks and turnovers over the past few weeks. The Packers have helped by being more ball control-oriented and complementary on offense, allowing the defense to be in position to tee off, and therefore protecting some of the coverage issues in the secondary.

Being set up with shorter fields and not having to sustain long scoring drives will be a welcome, needed relief initially for Rodgers. Giving him extra possessions with less yardage to cover tends to spell trouble for any opponent.

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