GREEN BAY, Wis. — No one was pointing fingers. Aaron Rodgers partly blamed himself for getting sacked a league-high 51 times last season. The offensive linemen admitted — for the most part — that they didn’t perform well enough. But with the ultimate responsibility falling on Mike McCarthy, the Green Bay Packers’ coach knew something had to be done.
There may have been other ways of fixing the offensive line issues, but McCarthy decided in late April to go with a relatively extreme option. He completely flip-flopped the left and right side of the line.
“It’s important to have that flexibility on both sides,” McCarthy said. “That’s the ultimate goal in the way we play to give Aaron Rodgers the capabilities at the line of scrimmage. That was a big part of it. Scheme evaluation also factored into that. Things we’re going to do in the upcoming season was another factor. So there’s a lot of things, a lot of talk. That was really the reason why I waited so long to make the final decision.”
McCarthy identified Bryan Bulaga as the team’s best offensive tackle and wanted to give him more responsibility. With that, Bulaga’s three years at right tackle were over as the Packers’ 2010 first-round pick was now the new left tackle.
Bulaga wasn’t making the switch alone, though. Josh Sitton, the starting right guard over the past four years, was joining Bulaga on the left side.
“We wanted to be stronger on the left side and we wanted to get our two best, most accomplished players on the left side,” offensive line coach James Campen said.
Instead of just moving one player, McCarthy considered all the work in recent years that Bulaga and Sitton had put in playing next to each other and decided not to interfere with that.
“Playing next to somebody for so long, you build that chemistry, you build that friendship,” Sitton said. “You build that bond with a guy. You learn how to fit run-blocks with somebody. I know how difficult it is to be thrown in with different people. It’s a big thing.
“I’m glad we moved together. Hopefully, we’ll kick some ass with it.”
Protecting Rodgers has always been very important for Green Bay’s offense. Without Rodgers, the Packers might struggle to even make the playoffs. But after the team signed Rodgers to the richest deal in NFL history earlier this offseason, McCarthy couldn’t afford to watch the franchise’s most valuable player get hit as often as he did a year ago.
“That’s just not acceptable,” Bulaga said of the number of times Rodgers was hit. “You can’t have that. We need to be better. It doesn’t matter what factor goes into a sack. Overall, we need to be better. That starts with the run game. It starts with pass protection. That’s everything. We just need to be better as a unit. That’s something that we’re working towards this offseason.”
Even with the protection issues, Green Bay finished last season ranked fifth in the NFL in points scored and 13th in total yards. That was not nearly as good as the Packers were in 2011 when they were first and third overall in those two categories, but Rodgers seemed a bit offended when it was suggested that a major change might have been needed.
“We still had a pretty good offense last year,” Rodgers said. “We did have some sacks, but 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 go through the offseason program and we watch the film and review and talk about things and try to clean things up. We’re not pointing the fingers at one position group in general.
“It’s an offensive issue and we have to clean it up.”
Green Bay’s running game was just as problematic as the pass protection. While going through five different starting running backs in 2012, the Packers finished 20th in the league in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per carry. The offensive line will have to improve in that phase of the game, but they’ll benefit from having rookie running backs Eddie Lacy (second-round pick) and Johnathan Franklin (fourth-round selection) getting the ball next season.
“We have a lot of different talent at running back,” Sitton said. “We have big guys, small guys, they’re all different. I’m excited to see how these new kids run the ball.”
In order for the position changes on the offensive line to be effective, Sitton, Bulaga and T.J. Lang will first have to get comfortable with their new spots.
“It was definitely awkward for us the first couple days out on the field,” said Lang, who is switching from left guard to right guard. “Your stance is uncomfortable, your footwork is awful, but we still have a lot of time before we open up the season to make sure we’re getting better at our new spots. You just have to keep a positive attitude, go out there and compete every day and just do what you can do to get better. That’s the only choice you have.
“If you have a negative attitude about it, that’s not going to allow you to get better. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Campen downplayed the challenge that it’s been for the players in his position group.
“It’s only difficult if you make it difficult,” Campen said. “It’s football. Really, these kids have had a lot of work in IPWs (Individual Player Workouts) — getting in a left-handed stance and the guys in the right getting in a right-handed stance. There’s a process that you go through and muscle memory and those things.”
The one starting spot on the offensive line that is still up for grabs is at right tackle. Marshall Newhouse, who was the starting left tackle last season, will have competition from Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod (if healthy) and rookie David Bakhtiari in determining who wins that job. If Newhouse does become the starting right tackle, the Packers will have kept only their center in place from last season. But even their center, Evan Dietrich-Smith, only became the starter at that position in Week 16 after McCarthy benched veteran Jeff Saturday.
“I’m excited about the five,” Rodgers said. “If you look at our offensive line, as compared to maybe the past couple years, I think we have a lot of talent, a lot of depth. Guys who played a lot, guys who have been in games and played big time for us. I’m excited about the competition we’re going to have and I think it’s going to be great to have it from Day 1 with those guys in those spots and letting the guys on the right side compete.”