GREEN BAY—In terms of pedigree and 2012 participation, there may not be a starker contrast in Saturday night’s NFC playoff game than the two offensive lines.
San Francisco’s starting five includes three first-round draft picks in left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis, plus a veteran with more than a decade of experience playing for his third team in center Jonathan Goodwin. Staley, Iupati and Goodwin have all been elected to Pro Bowls.
Green Bay’s starting five includes two fourth-round draft picks in guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, a fifth-round pick in left tackle Marshall Newhouse, and two undrafted free agents in center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right tackle Don Barclay. The Pro Bowl nods are nil.
San Francisco’s group has started every single game in 2012 at their assigned positions. Green Bay’s current group will be playing just its fourth game together in this alignment, as two players (Lang and Dietrich-Smith) have started at multiple spots this season.
If the Packers’ offensive linemen have even made the comparison, they aren’t letting on. There’s no reason for them to care. The 49ers’ offensive linemen aren’t the players they’ll have to block.
The Packers aren’t concerned about how their own group was constructed – though it’s worth noting as far as the investments made that a pair of Green Bay first-round draft picks in Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod are on injured reserve. They also aren’t dwelling on the adversity they’ve faced this season.
If anything, they feel it has toughened them up for the challenge that awaits in the 49ers defense on Saturday night.
“We feel confident and we’ve earned that confidence,” Lang said. “We like the way we’re playing. We feel good about the guys that have stepped up. That’s a tribute to all these guys, the way they prepare. When your number gets called, you have to step up and play, and that’s what we’ve had.”
The consensus amongst the players and coaches is that Barclay has steadily improved since making his first start at right tackle in Week 14, and the transition to Dietrich-Smith at center less than a month ago was seamless.
McCarthy said that last week Barclay played his best game thus far, and Dietrich-Smith felt the Week 17 road game at the Metrodome was a major step for the group as a whole. His fellow linemen adjusted to his silent count, which he said is different from Jeff Saturday’s, and the communication smoothed out as the offense put up 24 points in the second half.
“That was the biggest one, and we’ve been building momentum through that,” Dietrich-Smith said.
That momentum now meets the 49ers defense, which is characterized as one of the most “physical” units in the league. The Packers have heard that description ad nauseum this week, but Lang said they have to be careful not to let a response to that become the focus ahead of assignments and execution.
“There are times when if you try to jump off the ball and smash a guy, you’ll put yourself in a position to maybe whiff on a block,” Lang said. “Being an offensive lineman, you have to rely a lot more on your technique and fundamentals, and when those are working for you, then you can start really using the physical aspects of it.
“We’re kind of sick of hearing about people calling us soft, saying we’re not physical, but we have to make sure that’s not getting us out of the way we play. We have to play the way we play, and when the time is appropriate, make sure we’re punching back and not letting them tee off on us.”
Protecting Aaron Rodgers likely holds the key to the Packers’ fortunes on Saturday night. That’s been said all week, too.
The comparisons and descriptions are done now. All that’s left is to actually play.
“I think football starts up front,” McCarthy said. “I think the line of scrimmage is going to dictate a lot of what goes on Saturday night.” Additional coverage - Jan. 10