T.J. Lang had to summon a whole new level of concentration last Sunday in Kansas City.
Shifted from his starting left guard spot to right tackle in the emergency created by injuries to Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, Lang couldn’t help but feel his head starting to spin a little bit.
He hadn’t played tackle in a game since his rookie season in 2009, but it was his job now. His first snap was a run play and he felt fine. The next snap was a pass play and he could feel his feet getting tangled up a bit, adjusting to his new stance.
As the Packers then punted, Lang went to the sideline and took a deep breath. He realized two things.
First, he had done this before, even if it was two years ago. Second, if he focused too much on the guy across from him rather than on his training and fundamentals, he was never going to clear his head.
“You start thinking, ‘This guy is (lined up) wide, wow, I really have to explode,’ or ‘This guy is tight and he might crash inside,’ stuff like that,” Lang said. “There are a lot of thoughts when you go and play a position you’re not familiar with.
“You just have to calm down, rely on your technique and trust it’s going to work for you.”
The Packers will stick with Lang this week at right tackle against the Bears while Bulaga recovers from his second knee injury this year. Sherrod is on injured reserve with a broken leg, so newly signed Herb Taylor is now the emergency tackle.
The position switch is only adding to Lang’s story this season, which already was about finding a singular focus when necessary.
Last month prior to the Monday night game against the Vikings, Lang found out his father was dealing with a serious illness, yet, Lang played and still hasn’t missed a game.
His ability to compartmentalize has allowed him to become, as Head Coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week, one of the most valuable members on the offensive line, even in the midst of his father’s ongoing battle. That same ability will help him this week as he makes the temporary transition to tackle and draws upon all that he learned and practiced his rookie year.
“It’s like riding a bike,” Offensive Line Coach James Campen said of Lang returning to right tackle. “You have to retain what you’ve done in the past and move forward, and he’s gotten comfortable with that this week, getting all of his reps there.”
Lang said flipping from the left to the right side of the line is actually harder than moving from guard to tackle because of the footwork involved, but he had to do that back in ’09, too.
His first game action as a rookie was at left tackle as an injury substitute for Chad Clifton. Then, after playing parts of five games there, including two starts, he was suddenly needed at right tackle in place of Mark Tauscher and started one game there. All this after he worked most of his rookie preseason at left guard, the starting spot he finally won this year in training camp.
“He knows what he’s doing,” McCarthy said. “The cross-training in the earlier years, this is the product of it. When you get in these types of situations, you have players that can make the transition. Having a full week of practice preparing on the right side, I feel confident T.J. will be ready to go.”
While Lang didn’t have to deal last week with Kansas City’s premier pass-rusher, Tamba Hali, he may very well have to go one-on-one with Chicago’s Julius Peppers at some point Sunday night. Peppers leads the Bears with 10 sacks.
The Bears like to move Peppers around, lining him up on either side to keep offenses adjusting. Lang said facing an elite rusher places an even higher premium on fundamentals, everything from his pass-set to his balance to his hands, plus any helpful tricks that he has recalled this week.
“It’s just getting the technique back and remembering some little things I used to be good at,” Lang said.
Lang’s replacement at left guard will be Evan Dietrich-Smith, who started two games at right guard this season in Josh Sitton’s place.
Constantly adjusting the offensive line at this stage of the season isn’t ideal for the Packers, but it’s simply the reality they’re faced with until Bulaga comes back and, hopefully, no one else goes down.
Either way, the goal is to get Green Bay’s high-powered attack back on track heading into the postseason, no matter the adjustments being made up front.
“Especially on the offensive line, that’s something we take pride in is if you have to fill in, we don’t want to change up the whole game plan,” Lang said. “We expect things to be the same. We’re trusting in the game plan.”
Just as the Packers are trusting in Lang.
Injury update: McCarthy said on Thursday that inside linebacker Desmond Bishop was “close” to being a full participant in practice, and it appears he’s on track to play for the first time since injuring his calf in Detroit on Thanksgiving.
“I’ve made a big jump,” Bishop said. “Last week I was a little sore, still felt it a little bit. This week I’ve opened up, made some cuts, and did everything pain-free, so I’m feeling good.”
Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (concussion) took part in meetings on Thursday, McCarthy said, but still has not been cleared to practice.
That position group took another hit when Howard Green was added to the injury report with a foot injury. Green was a limited participant and McCarthy said the medical staff is “just being cautious with him.” Additional coverage - Dec. 22