GREEN BAY – The starting five on the Packers’ offensive line has not been together for a game in nearly two months, but the group might finally reunite on Saturday night.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday from his ankle injury. He gave no promises regarding his potential availability for the NFC divisional playoff game in Arizona, but the signs are the most positive they’ve been since the initial injury back in Week 15 in Oakland.
“This week I feel good,” said Bakhtiari, who has missed the last three games, all of which had a different replacement for him, the last being the best in JC Tretter. “Last week I felt good, too. The most important thing is it has been more time, so we’ll see what happens.”
If the starting five is intact on Saturday night, it’ll mark the first time since Nov. 22 at Minnesota and just the eighth time in 18 games this season.
That’s in such stark contrast to a year ago, when the offensive line rarely had to change. The group started Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga at the tackles, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang at the guards and Corey Linsley at center in 17 out of 18 games, including playoffs.
All the moving parts, both during the week and within the game itself, caught up to the Packers on their first trip to Arizona, which poured on nine sacks. Green Bay’s linemen stay together and don’t point fingers when there’s a breakdown, but there’s no doubting the confidence the entire offense would feel to know the starting group is together again.
As Bakhtiari said, “You can replace a player, but you can’t replace chemistry.” Sitton said he and Bakhtiari will be able to settle into their usual groove on the left side in no time, that it will feel “natural.”
Added Lang: “You talk about chemistry all the time up front, and the more snaps you get together, especially in one particular game, I feel like the better we’re going to perform. If you’ve got guys coming in here, guys coming in there, you probably overthink it a little too much.”
The Packers don’t want to get caught thinking against rushers like Dwight Freeney and Calais Campbell, on top of the various blitzes the Cardinals employ.
Several offensive players, including QB Aaron Rodgers, emphasized that they want to play fast, with the up-tempo style that helped break the offense out of its slump last week. The better the chemistry up front, and the less thinking, the easier it is to play at a fast pace, but it requires consistent execution as well.
“The tempo doesn’t work if you have an incomplete pass on first down or if you have a negative run,” Sitton said. “It’s just natural. If you’re getting positive yards, everybody is moving forward, everybody is moving that way.
“You have to convert the first third down to be able to use that tempo.”
There was no tempo or rhythm at all to the Packers’ offense in the Week 16 visit to Arizona, but the playoff rematch won’t be about avenging the 30-point loss or atoning for the offensive line’s roughest performance in recent memory.
The Packers vowed to start fresh with their first playoff game last week, and that approach isn’t changing.
“We’re just excited to go out there and have a chance at another playoff game,” Sitton said. “That’s what we’ve given ourselves, one more chance to keep moving on. We have two games until you’re in the Super Bowl. That’s what’s exciting. That’s what kind of makes the first game irrelevant.”
The Packers are both relaxed and confident, and getting another week healthier up front aids those states of mind.
Mike McCarthy has made it clear he’s not buying the underdog storyline, and his team seems to have drawn a distinction between being perceived as the underdog and actually feeling like one.
“The pressure is all going to be on them,” Rodgers said of the Cardinals. “They’re coming off a tough loss at home against Seattle. Before that they blew us out. They’re the Super Bowl favorites and obviously the favorite team on Saturday night.
“We just have to go out and be loose and let it all hang out, because the pressure is all on that side.”
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