Having seen plenty of shuffling the last couple of years on the offensive line in front of him, quarterback Aaron Rodgers knows as well as anyone the potential importance of every last lineman on the roster.
How prescient of him, then, to take the time to light a bit of a fire underneath backup center/guard Evan Dietrich-Smith this summer.
“I challenged him in training camp to step his play up,” Rodgers said.
Dietrich-Smith had made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2009, been cut following the preseason in 2010, came back as an insurance policy for the playoff run and was taking another crack at making the roster in 2011.
Not only did he make it, he’s now perhaps in line to make the biggest contribution of his career. There’s been no official announcement as to right guard Josh Sitton’s replacement while he recovers from a knee injury, but all signs point to Dietrich-Smith, who got the call when Sitton went down in Detroit on Thanksgiving.
It’s another tall order for Dietrich-Smith, who was charged with blocking first Ndamukong Suh and then rookie first-round draft pick Nick Fairley for the Lions. Sunday’s opponent, the New York Giants, similarly boast a pressure-oriented front four, though they’ll likely be missing Osi Umenyiora due to an ankle injury.
Still, Rodgers isn’t about to worry. Not after rookie Bryan Bulaga stepped in seamlessly for veteran Mark Tauscher at right tackle last year, and with a young Marshall Newhouse holding his own in place of Chad Clifton at left tackle this year.
Rodgers has always expressed the utmost confidence in anyone lining up in front of him, and that’ll be no different this week. Clearly, Rodgers saw the “step up” he needed to see from Dietrich-Smith in training camp and in relief of Sitton last week.
“Very comfortable, very comfortable,” Rodgers said, when asked his feelings on Dietrich-Smith. “He’s really shown a lot of improvement.”
For his part, Dietrich-Smith wouldn’t mind his status returning to that of anonymous lineman after all the attention he’s received for the abuse he took on Thanksgiving courtesy of Suh.
If he takes Sitton’s place again and no one notices, that’ll be just fine with him.
“I’m just preparing this week like I do every week,” he said. “If I’m called upon, I’ll do the job they want me to do and do it at the high level this offense has displayed all year.”
Dietrich-Smith spent his final night off to conclude the Packers’ “mini-bye” on Monday watching his upcoming task, the Giants, on television.
What he saw was a defense failing at what it normally does best – getting after the quarterback. New Orleans’ Drew Brees was not sacked once in throwing for 363 yards and four touchdowns, as Umenyiora’s early departure likely was a factor.
The Giants racked up 28 sacks through the first half of the season in going 6-2, a run that ended with a big road win over the New England Patriots. Since then, the Giants have just three sacks in their last three games, all losses. Their defense has fallen from third in the league in sacks per pass play to eighth over that time.
Jason Pierre-Paul leads the Giants and is tied for third in the league with 10½ sacks. Umenyiora has seven, followed by Mathias Kiwanuka with 3½.
“Their front four is definitely the strength of their defense,” left guard T.J. Lang said. “They take a lot of pride in getting pressure on the quarterback, and when they’ve had success hitting the quarterback, their team usually has success, as well. When they’ve struggled to get to the quarterback, opposing teams have put up a lot of points on them.”
At 11-0 and looking to possibly clinch the NFC North title this weekend with a win and some help, the Packers expect a certain level of execution, no matter the opponent or how deep they have to dig into their roster.
Dietrich-Smith’s play is just another example of the next-man-in philosophy that helped carry the Packers to the Super Bowl title last year. It applied to the linebacking corps last week, as well, when D.J. Smith and Robert Francois stepped in for Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk.
“That’s the way we’re built around here,” Rodgers said. “Our personnel department brings in a lot of talented players. The last two, three years there have been very difficult cuts in the preseason, because you see so many guys stake a case to make this team.
“The best 53 end up making it and, when a guy goes down, the next guy is expected to step up and play at or very close to the level of the guy in front of him.”
Injury/participation update: Sitton has been officially ruled out for this week, as has Clifton, who is now also rehabbing a back injury that cropped up during his recovery from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him since Week 5. Head Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t say how much longer Clifton might be out
Inside linebackers Bishop and Hawk, both of whom are nursing calf injuries, sat out practice on Wednesday and will not practice on Thursday, McCarthy said. They will be re-evaluated on Friday.
Outside linebacker Erik Walden, who has a court hearing related to last week’s arrest scheduled for next week, practiced and is expected to start on Sunday, McCarthy said. Additional coverage - Nov. 30