Injuries and unexpected absences are a fact of life in the NFL , and few teams around the league have had to deal with the quantity of serious injuries that the Packers have faced over the past few years. However, a well-run organization has the coaches to adapt to changing personnel and the depth of said personnel to step in for absent players and perform. Luckily, the Packers have done both successfully recently, winning the Super Bowl two years ago despite a multitude of injuries and earning the NFC North crown this year.
Because Green Bay played the San Francisco 49ers in week one of this year, a logical conclusion is that both teams have changed significantly between that game and the Divisional Round of the playoffs. But just how much of that change is actually significant in terms of personnel? Devin touched on the Packers' changing identity earlier, but I'll examine the actual roster changes that will make this week's game so very different from the one in Lambeau in early September. We'll also compare the number of changes on the Packers' roster to that of the 49ers to see if any interesting observations can be found.
The first table we'll see is the breakdown of players that were on each team's roster in week 1 who are not there now (and how they were removed from the roster), and the players who are taking their roster spots now:
On Week 1 Roster
Benson, Cedric RB (IR)
Bulaga, Bryan T (IR)
Merling, Philip DE (waived)
Perry, Nick LB (IR)
Richardson, Sean S (IR)
Ross, Brandian CB (waived)
Saine, Brandon RB (IR)
Smith, D.J. LB (IR)
Grant, Ryan RB
Harris, DuJuan RB
Miller, Jordan DT
Neal, Mike DE
Ross, Jeremy WR
Van Roten, Greg, OL
Walden, Erik LB
Zombo, Frank LB
On Week 1 Roster
Dobbs, DeMarcus TE (IR)
Hunter, Kendall RB (IR)
Jacobs, Brandon RB (waived)
Williams, Kyle WR (IR)
Cundiff, Billy K
Hampton, Jewel RB
Jerod-Eddie, Tony DT
Johnson, Cam LB
Wilhoite, Michael LB
When looking at the Packers' week one roster, I had almost totally forgotten that Neal and Walden were sitting out on suspension - Neal's for four games for substance abuse and Walden's a one-game suspension for personal conduct. The list is longer for the Packers, to be sure, with eight Packers no longer on the roster to five 49ers, but it doesn't really display the full effect and impact of those injuries like the following table does. Here we have the Packers' starters who have changed from the game in week 1 to those projected for this week:
Position............Week 1 Starter... Projected Starter
Running Back.....Cedric Benson.... DuJuan Harris
Center..............Jeff Saturday.... Evan Dietrich-Smith
Right Tackle.....Bryan Bulaga..... Don Barclay
Left Outside LB..Nick Perry ...... Erik Walden
Inside LB..........D.J. Smith ...... Brad Jones
Cornerback.......Jarrett Bush..... Sam Shields
Two of those changes were made due to poor play (center and corner), but the other four were due to season-ending injuries. As for the 49ers, there is only one entry on a similar table: at quarterback, Alex Smith will sit in favor of Colin Kaepernick. It's a major change at the most important position on the field, but it demonstrates that the Packers have dealt with several more injuries to starters and key players than the 49ers.
Do you need another example of this? Let's look at a breakdown of how many players have started a certain number of games for each team in 2012 (regular season games only, as recorded by Pro Football Reference):
Games Started...Packers ....49ers
1+ ...............42 ...............29
5+ ...............31 ...............25
10+ .............17 ...............20
16 ............... 7 ................17
This might be the most staggering indication of how many players have been in and out of the Packers' lineup this year. By my count, the Packers had the most players start this season of any playoff team (Indianapolis was next with 41, then New England and Baltimore at 40), while the 49ers had the fewest (Denver was second-fewest with 32). Then notice as the games started goes up, the trends switch, with the 49ers having all but five positions on offense and defense started by the same person each game.
Having this many players start would naturally be undesirable, but it has allowed the Packers to develop some young players in ways that they could not in practice alone. Casey Hayward, for example, is no longer a starter, but he was in the starting lineup for several games while Sam Shields was out and appears to be a favorite for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. With Woodson and Matthews out for stretches, the defense went through some growing pains but held together and got some young players like Jerron McMillian and Dezman Moses valuable experience.
When looking at the rosters, these two teams are verry different from their week one identities, but for very different reasons. The Packers went through a lot of injuries and adversity, but emerged with a deeper team that has been getting key players back on the field in the past few weeks. Meanwhile, the 49ers have a different identity on offense because of a change at quarterback, but remain relatively similar otherwise. Saturday night will determine if these changes affect the results on the field.