GREEN BAY — Nobody on the offensive line saw the catch in real time.
Yet, the roar of more than 77,000 in attendance at Lambeau Field quickly confirmed a touchdown the instant Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary descended into the New York Giants’ end zone as time expired in the first half of Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game.
Lost in the mass of receivers and defensive backs was receiver Randall Cobb tucking himself behind the scrum to haul in the 42-yard touchdown to give Green Bay a 14-6 halftime lead and the offense’s third successful Hail Mary in 13 months.
The cameras all set their focus on Rodgers and Cobb. As vital as both players were to the connection, the Packers’ offensive line had an equally crucial role in the overall execution of the play.
In Green Bay, offensive linemen know there’s no expiration on pass-protection. Position coach James Campen drills that point home with his players the day they walk into the building. It’s up to them to give Rodgers however long he requires to extend plays and make something happen.
On a Hail Mary, right tackle Bryan Bulaga estimates the line needs to give Rodgers six or seven seconds to allow the receivers to get into position and Rodgers a chance to step into a deep throw.
While the overall success rate of the play is not typically high, Rodgers and the Packers seem to have a knack for it.
“As an offensive line we know, ‘Hey, we have to set this thing up for five-to-six seconds and hold our (ground),’” Bulaga said. “I’ve never seen a guy throw so many Hail Marys, it’s unbelievable in two years – I can’t believe that.
“The guys in the end zone did a great job. We drill that all the time and the guys boxed out and got in position, and Randall was able to come down with it. It’s pretty awesome.”
After the game, Rodgers praised his offensive line for giving him a comfortable pocket to operate from all night, quipping about the line’s job of blocking “until infinity” in his postgame news conference.
The Hail Mary was the play everyone talked about, but several times Rodgers needed upwards of 5 seconds to make something happen downfield. His line never blinked, with perhaps no better example of its stability than on the first of Rodgers’ four touchdown passes in the second quarter.
Rodgers put on a footwork clinic in the pocket, buying his receivers nearly 10 seconds to find a hole in the league’s best red-zone defense. At the precise moment Davante Adams gained separation near the pylon, Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison appeared to have a chance to hit Rodgers.
Instead of giving Harrison a shot at Rodgers, center Corey Linsley darted over to provide a block, providing Rodgers an extra millisecond to get the ball out and hit Adams for the 5-yard touchdown.
“It’s just another day in the life for us,” Linsley said. “It seems like we have those extended plays a lot. I was excited because usually I’m just the guy standing there with another guard, just double-teaming a guy. Dave (Bakhtiari) and Bryan are usually the ones on islands. I was happy I could get a little recognition there, do a good job there. Our tackles fought their (tail) off all game as did we all.”
Familiarity on the line has been key for the offense this season, especially at tackle where Bakhtiari, recently named second-team AP All-Pro, and Bulaga haven’t missed a start this year for Green Bay.
The Giants were credited with only three hits for the game on Rodgers, who hit his stride after the touchdown pass to Adams. Like his Hail Marys last season against Detroit and Arizona, Rodgers again had ample time to set his feet and throw.
“Hearing the stadium erupt, we knew we had scored,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “It gives you a huge boost, especially with how stagnant we were at times in the first half as an offense, to go in with an eight-point lead at halftime after feeling like we hadn’t played that good of football was obviously great for your confidence and great for the momentum.”
Bulaga smiles while admitting that buying time can be “a little tiring,” but the Packers’ linemen know the reward. The more time you give Rodgers to function, the higher the probability he’s going to do something to deflate a defense.
To Bulaga, it’s about playing until “we hear that crowd cheer for a big play.” That sound was music to the Packers’ ears shortly before heading into the locker room for halftime on Sunday.
The way Rodgers is playing right now, the Packers hope it’s only the sign of what’s to come this postseason.
“I was around for his MVP in ’11. I’ve been around since our Super Bowl, so I’ve seen a lot of good play from Aaron,” Bulaga said. “This is top of the line right now. He’s playing lights-out.
“I don’t want to say this is the best I’ve ever seen him play because he’s won two MVPs and played so well for so long that you can’t really say this is the best. He’s playing amazing right now. No doubt.”