But through the season’s first four games, the line has proven capable of making adjustments and corrections when things go wrong – the ability to right the ship, so to speak – and that has given the offense confidence in a couple of areas. First, that the group can make the transition to Bryan Bulaga or T.J. Lang starting at right tackle for the injured Mark Tauscher this week rather seamlessly, and second, that a solid, cohesive unit is forming for the long haul.
As discussed in a story last month, the offensive line was put to the test right away in Week 1 when it gave up three sacks of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in barely more than a quarter of play. But experience and a calm demeanor carried the day, as the protection stiffened and Rodgers wasn’t sacked the rest of the game in Philadelphia, nor was he even pressured much the following week vs. Buffalo.
Then came the penalty-laden nightmare in Chicago in Week 3, when the offensive linemen were called for eight infractions – three holding calls, four false starts and one illegal formation – and a protection breakdown led to another offensive penalty for intentional grounding by Rodgers.
But the flag-filled performance didn’t evolve into a trend, as things were cleaned up considerably last week vs. Detroit. The offense was called for just one penalty, a holding on tight end Jermichael Finley that was offset by a Detroit personal foul, and the line’s performance became downright dominant over the final 6½ minutes as the offense ran out the clock to preserve a two-point victory.
“These guys throughout the course of time, as much time as we’ve been with them, the things we’ve emphasized and the things we’ve preached and worked on and practiced, they’ve taken it to heart and they’ve given an honest effort to correct their problems,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “They certainly did that last week.”
That final drive against the Lions was probably the most impressive stretch of play by the line so far in 2010. Leading 28-26 with 6:32 left, the Packers took over on their own 13-yard line and needed a productive drive to, at a minimum, keep the defense off the field for a while. But in the huddle, the players had bigger ideas.
“I remember everybody talking about 6½ minutes, let’s eat up all the time and get a touchdown,” center Scott Wells said. “We wanted some points. We had that mindset that we wanted to march down the field and cap it off with some points. But the most important thing though was securing the win, and we were able to do that.”
Running simple handoffs on eight of 11 snaps, when Detroit was loading up to stop the run, and gaining 31 yards on those eight runs proved that basic execution up front can trump all else when the offense really needs it. The offense churned out six first downs, capped by John Kuhn’s 8-yard run on third-and-7, and then took a knee on the final snap.
“I take it as a credit to the players,” Philbin said. “They did a heck of a job. They (Detroit) knew we were going to run the ball. I told the whole offense, some of the plays that we ran, the last couple of plays at the end of the game, against that defense, there’s not one coach in the league who’s going to stand up on a table and say those are great calls against that front.
“But with that being said, credit our guys -- Josh Sitton took his guy for a ride, Chad (Clifton) took his guy for a ride, Tom Crabtree … there wasn’t one guy who had leverage pre-snap on one of those blocks. But you know what? They got their eyes on their aiming point, they kept their feet moving, we ran the ball hard, and we gained yards, and that’s what football is all about.”
The hope now is to use that drive as a prelude to fewer problems and more consistent execution as the season reaches its middle stages.
“It says something,” Wells said of a drive like that. “Anytime you get in a point where you have to eat up 6½ minutes with a 4-minute offense and you’re running the football, and they know you’re running the football, and you’re able to execute basically the same three plays, and eat up all that time and move the ball, it’s big. It’s something you can hang your hat on as an offense.”
Wells and his linemates know they haven’t fixed all the flaws, though, because that’s an ongoing battle. They did give up two sacks against the Lions, one on a safety blitz and another when guard Daryn Colledge tried to help to the outside too soon and allowed too much room inside for Detroit rookie Ndamokung Suh to slip through.
There were also two failed third-and-shorts that the line wasn’t happy about. On a third-and-2 in the first quarter, Kuhn was tripped up after just a 1-yard gain. Then on third-and-1 on the next drive, Rodgers was pressured and flushed out of the pocket, and his throw on the run went out of bounds.
This group’s track record indicates those are issues that won’t crop up again this week in Washington, though the continuity of the group is taking a hit with Tauscher’s injury. Working in a new right tackle for the first time since the middle of last season, whether it’s Bulaga or Lang, is another challenge that needs to be overcome, just like it was when Bulaga filled in for Clifton at left tackle in Week 2. This veteran group isn’t about to let one injury slow the progression that’s developing.
“There’s no excuses,” Wells said. “In this business, anytime your number is called, you have to step up and perform at a high level. That’s why you’re on the team. Whatever happens, we go out there and play with whoever’s available, and we look to have the same execution and improve on the things coach pointed out from last week and move forward.”
As the cliché goes, everything starts up front, so the steady progress with the line also applies to the offense as a whole. For all the consternation about the inconsistent running game and the lack of a steady rhythm at times this season, Philbin made a point to give the offense a “state of the union” update with one quarter of the season in the books.
Philbin noted that, compared to a year ago at this time, the Packers have scored more points (106 to 104), dramatically reduced sacks allowed (from 20 to 5), and improved their red-zone and third-down efficiencies. The primary concern at the moment is turnovers, which are more than doubled (8 to 3) compared to the first four games a year ago.
So there’s plenty to build on, and the nature of the game dictates there will be areas to emphasize and correct from week to week. So far those corrections keep getting made, particularly by the linemen, which in turn strengthens the offensive foundation going forward.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Philbin said. “We’re not a finished product by any means.
“We just have to get back to playing good, solid football. We’re not going to sit here and say we’re never going to have a penalty again, because that’s unrealistic. And we’re not going to say we’re never going to have a giveaway again, because that’s unrealistic. But the degree to which we do those things, we know where that fine line is. Our players know where we think it’s acceptable and where it isn’t, and we need to stay on that line.”
Additional coverage – Oct. 8