GREEN BAY—Flipping sides isn’t as easy as flipping a switch, but with 110 days until the season opener in San Francisco, the Packers offensive linemen are confident they have plenty of time to smooth out this offseason makeover.
That was the gist of the comments following Tuesday’s OTA practice, just the second time Bryan Bulaga, Josh Sitton, Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang lined up – with defenders across from them – on the side opposite their previous positions.
Bulaga and Sitton have moved from right tackle and right guard to left tackle and left guard, respectively, while Newhouse and Lang have done the opposite. They talked about the switch being “a process” that is just getting started, two days into OTAs.
“It’s different. I’ve lined up on the right side for nine years,” said Sitton, who is entering his sixth pro season, most among the group, and who dabbled at left guard in the Pro Bowl over the winter. “I played a little bit of left guard in college for a couple games, but you do something for so long, it kind of messes with your head.”
Bulaga isn’t as far removed from his time on the left side, having played left tackle in college at Iowa as recently as 2009. He was drafted in the first round in 2010 as a potential heir apparent to longtime left tackle Chad Clifton, but he was needed as a rookie at right tackle when Mark Tauscher got injured. Then, he settled in until missing the second half of 2012 with a hip injury.
Helping the transition for both is that they’re doing so together after the equivalent of roughly two full seasons next to each other on the right side. Mike McCarthy has said he considers Bulaga and Sitton the team’s two best linemen, and he wanted them on the left to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ blind side, but it’s going to take some time for everything to click.
“It’s like batting left-handed or right-handed, but not being ambidextrous,” said Bulaga, who added he’s had no setbacks in his recovery from the hip injury and feels fine to this point. “OTAs is a good start for it, to be going against guys like Clay (Matthews) and Mike Neal. That’s good. That’s only going to help me, help footwork-wise and seeing different looks.
“I’m happy the switch was made now so that Josh and I both, and even T.J. and Marshall flipping to the other side as well, we can all get used to it and get our footwork down.”
Most linemen say footwork is the primary issue in making such a change, but it’s not the only one. Lang has done it the most, having played right tackle as a rookie in 2009 and for a few games last year (when injuries dictated), sandwiched around becoming the starting left guard in 2011.
“It’s flipping everything,” Newhouse said. “It’s flipping your hips, flipping your hands, flipping the plays in your head, and doing it all at the same speed or faster. It takes a little bit.”
Newhouse was the first right tackle with the No. 1 offensive line in Tuesday’s workout, but it’s been made known the spot is open to competition.
Second-year pro Don Barclay rotated in for some snaps with the No. 1 group, while rookie fourth-round draft pick David Bakhtiari could get into the mix as well.
Newhouse said he’s taking the change from left tackle to right as “motivation,” acknowledging that “my play was part of them thinking they had to make a decision.” But he knows there’s no time to get down on himself with a job on the line.
“It’s bear down, honestly,” he said. “Just be a guy they can depend on. I don’t want to be perceived as a weak part of the line. That sucks. It’s less outside of the locker room and more inside the locker room. I want to make myself into a strength of the offensive line.”
Whoever plays which spot, the objective is for the Packers to run the ball and protect Rodgers better. Running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin were drafted to help boost the running game, and last year’s 51 sacks – second-most in the league – can’t be repeated.
For his part, Rodgers believes everybody will be “fine” in their new spots. He wasn’t laying all of last year’s sacks at his linemen’s feet, either.
“I think we still had a pretty good offense last year,” Rodgers said. “We did have some sacks. We need to clean things up. Everybody takes their role in that. I take my part in that. It’s the line at times, it’s myself, sometimes it’s schematic stuff.
“We’re not pointing the fingers at one position group in general. It’s an offensive issue and we’ve got to clean it up.”
As far as the guys up front are concerned, it starts with them, and the change in alignment is only step one.
“That’s not acceptable,” Bulaga said of the 51 sacks. “We can’t have that. We need to be better. It doesn’t matter what factor goes into a sack. It doesn’t really matter. Overall, we need to be better. It starts with the run game and it starts with pass protection. It’s something we’re working towards this offseason.”