GREEN BAY, Wis. — It doesn’t require the advantage of hindsight to know that the Packers had little room for injuries on their offensive line this season. The team knew it was running a risk since the first day of practice. And for nine weeks, Green Bay got away with it.
But now, after a season-ending hip injury to starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga on Nov. 4 and the recent ankle injury to left-guard-turned-right-tackle T.J. Lang, the protection in front of reigning MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers has never been more uncertain.
No quarterback in the NFL has been sacked more than Rodgers this season, and the majority of those came with a healthy, fully intact group of starting offensive linemen.
“The sack totals are too high,” coach Mike McCarthy said Nov. 27, two days after Rodgers was sacked five times by the New York Giants. “We’ve had some games where it’s gotten out of hand.”
Rodgers has been sacked five or more times in four games already this season, including the Week 3 game at Seattle, where he was sacked eight times. In those four games, Green Bay’s record is 1-3. When Rodgers has been sacked two times or fewer in a game this season, the Packers are 5-0.
“It’s something that we obviously talk about,” Rodgers said recently. “We shoot for a lot less (sacks) than we’ve had so far. We’ve got to do a better job as an offense of eliminating some of those. Everybody has a part in that, and, as a whole, we have to do a better job, because those hits start to add up a little bit.”
All of those hits have yet to add up to an injury for Rodgers, but even his mobility and durability can offset only so much. Though Green Bay has endured many key injuries this season, the one it couldn’t withstand is if Rodgers went down.
There have been a few games this season, most notably at Seattle (Week 3) and at New York (Week 12), when Rodgers didn’t even have time to properly operate the offense before pressure from the defense forced him to alter his plans.
When the Packers have performances like those, offensive line coach James Campen doesn’t simply let them forget about it.
“You have to dissect it, look at it, analyze it, see what happened, why it happened and make the corrections,” Campen said. “Players and myself have to be accountable, and you move on from it. But you certainly don’t brush it underneath the rug and say, ‘Aw, heck, it’s a bad day.’ Or, ‘Gee, whiz,’ or one of those deals.
“That’s a loser’s mentality. You have to identify it and make the corrections and move on.”
This week, Campen said he doesn’t worry about stats. But a week earlier, he admitted it isn’t just media and fans making a big deal about all the pressure Rodgers has been under this season.
“Any time a quarterback gets hit … it’s not just sacks, it’s a hit, it’s pressure, it’s a big deal,” Campen said. “The quarterback has to be protected. We all know there’s going to be times he’s not going to be. There’s going to be times he gets hit.
“The frequency is too great. Yeah, it’s a big deal.”
If Lang joins Bulaga on the sideline Sunday night against the Detroit Lions, which likely will be the case after Lang missed Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices, Rodgers will be protected by undrafted rookie Don Barclay at right tackle and undrafted fourth-year lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard.
In Dietrich-Smith’s four games at left guard so far, he performed quite well in two of them and not so well in one.
“Evan’s coming along,” Rodgers said. “He’s probably our center of the future, and he also feels comfortable at guard.”
Barclay stepped on the field Sunday against Minnesota following Lang’s injury and held up adequately considering the circumstances. It was the first offensive snaps of Barclay’s NFL career, and though he gave up three quarterback hurries and committed two penalties, McCarthy didn’t have to change the offense because Barclay was in the game.
“When a rookie comes in for his first time in game action and you’re able to keep playing throughout your game plan, I think that’s a big credit to him,” McCarthy said.
Green Bay’s offensive line will benefit when Lang is able to return, but the recovery time for his injury includes a few uncertainties. But the Packers can’t afford any more injuries to that group. Their 2011 first-round pick, offensive tackle Derek Sherrod, was unable to play all year due to a broken leg suffered last season. Bulaga is on injured reserve, and Lang had been dealing with elbow and wrist issues prior to injuring his ankle Dec. 3.
General manager Ted Thompson, along with McCarthy, have already had to call up interior lineman Greg Van Roten from the practice squad this season. With all the injuries, Van Roten is the only offensive lineman left on the bench. That means even more practice-squad players — Andrew Datko, Shea Allard and Joe Gibbs — could soon be on the active roster and asked to keep Rodgers on his feet.
“The practice-squad kids are trained the same way as if they’re on the active roster,” Campen said.
Whoever is blocking up front, the Packers’ success the rest of this season will largely depend on how much time they’re able to create for Rodgers to throw in the pocket.