The offensive line’s struggles in 2009 were well-documented, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers being sacked 41 times in the first nine games, including four contests where he was dropped at least six times.
The line was forced to do some shuffling early on with injuries to center Jason Spitz and left tackle Chad Clifton, but it started to click during the team’s run to the postseason. Veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher returned from a season-ending knee injury suffered in December 2008, starting eight of the final nine games, and the front was comprised of the same five as the line allowed just nine sacks of Rodgers over the final seven games.
“We don’t want to start the way we did last year,” said starting center Scott Wells, who opened the final 14 games in ’09. “We played basically two different types of offense. The first half of the year was not very good and the second half was a lot better.
“We want to go out from the get-go and play better than we did in the second half of last year. So we want to build on that, but move forward and improve at the same time.”
While the preseason can only provide so much of a gauge with opposing defenses not wanting to show too much, the Packers’ line looks to be picking up right where it left off. The No. 1 line didn’t allow a sack of Rodgers on 53 attempts in the three preseason games he played in, the second straight preseason Rodgers wasn’t sacked, as he posted a league-best 141.2 passer rating. The first offense scored seven touchdowns in a little more than four quarters of work in those three contests that featured the same line each game, with all seven of those drives at least 70 yards in length.
“The best offensive lines that I have been a part of are the ones that have the ability to start 16 games, then 32, and you start having the opportunity to really get into a rhythm and handle the challenges that defenses present to you and make the adjustments,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “People think that you are out there making adjustments by first making a call. Those guys don’t have time to make calls. It has to happen on the move, and a big part of that is the continuity that they were able to establish through training camp.”
The line’s first test comes Sunday in Philadelphia against an Eagles defense that ranked tied for third in the NFL last season with 44 sacks, including 12½ from right defensive end Trent Cole, which ranked sixth in the league and earned him Pro Bowl recognition. Left defensive end Juqua Parker added eight sacks, and this season he will be backing up rookie Brandon Graham, selected by the Eagles this spring with the No. 13 overall pick out of Michigan.
Philadelphia’s defense, which ranked No. 9 against the run and No. 12 overall in ’09, is run by second-year coordinator Sean McDermott, who took over for the late Jim Johnson, a respected veteran coach who ran the Eagles’ defense from 1999-2008.
“We haven’t played them for two years, but certainly you can see a lot of the components of (Johnson’s) defense,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “They have got a great blitz package. It is very comprehensive. They can come from just about every which way you can imagine with a lot of different combinations, both with personnel, overload to the field, overloading to the boundary, overloading up the middle.
“They have got it all, which challenges you. You have to spend practice time on it and there has to be great communication between the O-line, the running backs, the quarterback, the receivers, everybody.”
While the linemen can expect to see plenty of different looks from Philadelphia’s defense, they can also take some comfort in their success against pressure last season. According to STATS, Rodgers finished No. 2 in the NFL (min. 100 attempts) in blitz-situation passing in 2009 with a 112.7 rating, just a shade behind Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his 112.9 rating. Rodgers completed 125-of-180 passes (69.4 percent) for 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
But that was last season, and the offense knows that the slate is wiped clean starting Sunday in Philadelphia.
“The great thing about football -- I told our guys Monday when we started meeting about it -- is it is kind of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately profession and where are you,” Philbin said. “You get challenged every single week in this league big-time. We are going to face a huge challenge on Sunday.
“I am confident in our guys that if they do the things fundamentally and schematically that we have been practicing for a long time, I think we will have success. But again, that has to be proven out there.”
Cornerback Brandon Underwood (shoulder) was ruled out for Sunday.
Linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) did not participate for the second straight day and is questionable. He was off to the side during the jog-through portion before heading inside the Don Hutson Center.
“I just ran on it a little bit, nothing too strenuous,” Bishop said. “Just kind of tested it out. It went good. I think I’ll be ready to go.”
Defensive end Mike Neal (side) missed practice for a second straight day, and is also listed as questionable.
“We are going to give him every opportunity,” McCarthy said. “He will be a game-time decision. Mike has had a very good training camp. He has really improved with all of his opportunities, so we’re going to give Mike Neal every opportunity up until game time to get ready.”
Linebacker Brady Poppinga (knee), who sat out practice the past two days, returned as a limited participant and is listed as probable for Sunday. Tackle/guard Bryan Bulaga (hip), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf), and linebackers Clay Matthews (hamstring) and Brad Jones (shoulder) are all listed as probable.
Cornerback Charles Woodson was added to the injury report with a toe injury he sustained in practice on Friday. It is an issue he has battled in the past during his time in Green Bay, but he is listed as probable.
“He jammed it on the field today, near the end of practice,” McCarthy said. “Just stepped on the back of one of our receiver’s foot. Just being cautious and we sent him up to the training room for some rehab.”
Tackle Chad Clifton (knee) and safety Derrick Martin (ankle), who both underwent surgery during the offseason, did not participate in Friday’s practice but are listed as probable for Sunday.
Additional coverage – Sept. 10