GREEN BAY—T.J. Lang confesses he had his doubts at the beginning.
He wasn’t sure about switching guard spots with Josh Sitton when he first lined up at right guard last May. That’s when Lang realized how long it might take for a new stance and reversed footwork to feel normal after two years mostly at left guard.
Then came the season opener at San Francisco, where Lang admitted to feeling “stressed out” with the adjustment. He didn’t feel any better when he watched the film and saw lapses in his fundamentals, saying everything looked “off.”
“Working on a comfortable stance, that was the biggest thing,” Lang said in a recent interview following an offseason workout. “If you’re not comfortable in your stance, you’re going to have all kind of thoughts going through your head at the snap. You definitely want to have a clear mind before the play.”
Lang stayed committed to the change, though, and his head started to clear up around the third or fourth game. From there, his play was as steady as ever.
He started every game at right guard – his fourth different starting position since being drafted in the fourth round in 2009 – and played some at the fifth and final spot, too, filling in mid-game a couple of times at center for a banged-up Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Maybe, just maybe, the versatile Lang has finally found a home at right guard. One year after the switch, that’s how it sounds.
“I was definitely skeptical of the move at first,” he said. “I think Josh and I both were. But it turns out, the coaches were pretty right.
“I feel like I’m coming off my best season in five years. I definitely attribute that to the change and buying into it.”
Health played a major factor, too. Lang dealt with elbow and ankle injuries in 2012 and wasn’t proud of some performances. That wasn’t how he planned on playing after signing a multi-year contract extension in training camp that year.
The ankle injury forced him to miss one game, the only one he’s missed over the past three years. But it was the elbow injury that was the bigger hindrance as he played three-fourths of the season with a bulky brace on his arm.
“It definitely showed in my play I wasn’t 100 percent,” Lang said. “I played about 12 games with (the bum elbow). I could tell I just wasn’t feeling right.
“Being an offensive lineman, you have to use your hands a whole lot, and your upper body, and there were times I felt completely weak.”
The Packers’ running game had elicited similar descriptions in recent years, but that all changed in 2013, too.
With the flip-flop at guard, the quick maturation of rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, the acquisition of running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin and the relative good health of James Starks, a Green Bay ground game that ranked in the 20s three years running suddenly climbed to seventh in the league.
Last season, the Packers compiled 150 rushing yards in a game eight times, nearly tripling the three such accomplishments over the previous three seasons combined. Can the running game keep that up, or perhaps even improve, in 2014?
“That’s the goal,” Lang said. “The key to that is never being satisfied. When you’ve got runners like Eddie and James who are going to fight for every yard and not go down easy, break tackles, that’s how we have to block. We have to block like those guys run. Finish every play.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t take it another step this year.”
If they do, it’ll be with a different lineup. Dietrich-Smith’s departure in free agency and tackle Bryan Bulaga’s return from a knee injury will likely put different players on either side of Lang this season.
The center position is shaping up as a battle between JC Tretter and new draft pick Corey Linsley, though there’s always a chance Lang gets a look at that spot, too. Like Lang, Don Barclay has played multiple positions in his brief career, while Derek Sherrod also will look to get into the mix after missing nearly two full years due to injury.
Other than Bakhtiari and Sitton holding down the fort on the left side, much remains uncertain up front, but last year’s experience indicates the unit can manage any necessary changes and come together effectively.
“Personally, I’ve played with three different centers now the last three years,” Lang said. “It’s something that definitely takes some time to adjust to, to build that chemistry, but it’s not like it can’t be done. It will get done.
“Wherever they decide to line up the pieces, we’ll have to build chemistry and build chemistry fast.”