GREEN BAY, Wis. — Losing starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga for the remainder of the season may not be a devastating setback for the Packers.
The decision to place Bulaga — who injured his hip on Nov. 4 — on injured reserve earlier this week created a ripple effect along Green Bay’s offensive line. T.J. Lang will move from left guard to Bulaga’s spot at right tackle, while backup Evan Dietrich-Smith takes over Lang’s position.
But is that new lineup any worse than the one the Packers sent out for their first nine games this season?
“No, I don’t believe it is,” offensive line coach James Campen said Thursday. “My whole thing is, the reason why I’m saying that is, and I truly believe this and I’ve said it 100 times, whoever’s starting, they’re expected to start and play as a starter. The backups should be ready to go and if they have to go in, they’re expected to play at a starting caliber.
“There is no compromise with that. There really is no compromise. They’re expected to win.”
The most important aspect of Lang’s shift to right tackle is that it won’t change the play-calling of coach Mike McCarthy.
“T.J. won’t keep us out of anything as far as the way we game plan here the last couple days,” McCarthy said. “So we have a lot of confidence in T.J. at right tackle.”
After Bulaga was injured in the second quarter of Green Bay’s win prior to its bye week, Lang made the in-game switch and played very well. Though the Packers’ offense only scored 10 points in the second half, Lang’s protection of quarterback Aaron Rodgers was stellar.
“(Lang) is a guy who is extremely smart, he knows the offense inside and out, and gives you tremendous flexibility,” Campen said.
Bulaga has arguably been Green Bay’s least effective offensive lineman this season, particularly on passing plays. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Bulaga’s allowed 20 quarterback hurries this season, only four more than the rest of the Packers’ starting offensive linemen have given up combined.
The biggest change upfront is adding Dietrich-Smith into the mix. But that move is welcomed news to Rodgers, who praised the 26-year-old interior lineman.
“We believe (Dietrich-Smith) going to be a big part of the future of the Packers’ offensive line,” Rodgers said this week. “It will be good for him to get some reps in from the start of the game. He did a good job last week coming in off the bench cold. He’ll be ready to play.”
For Dietrich-Smith, who was released by the Packers after training camp in 2010 only to return several months later, it didn’t take long for him to hear that the NFL’s Most Valuable Player had such positive comments about him.
“My agent said something about it,” Dietrich-Smith said. “It’s nice. I’m really glad he has confidence in me, because that’s kind of the thing that I really want as a player is to know that I’m not going out there and these guys are like, ‘Oh, my god, we’re going to get murdered. I have to help this guy more than that guy. Coaches have to change the game-plan because this guy is probably going to get the quarterback killed.’
“Knowing that they have confidence to run anything is a big thing for me.”
It certainly didn’t appear two years ago that Dietrich-Smith was going to be a significant part of Green Bay’s future. After being cut by the Packers and spending a short time with the Seattle Seahawks, Dietrich-Smith ended up searching for employment in the real world.
“I took a test to become a substitute teacher,” he said. “Honestly, I tried to figure out a place to call home for a little bit until I figured stuff out.”
Dietrich-Smith played 322 snaps last season, but the results weren’t phenomenal. However, this season has been a big improvement thus far. He played a few snaps in motion as a fullback and tight end for a new set of running plays that McCarthy was trying out. But Dietrich-Smith knows those plays are gone now as he transitions to a full-time starter.
“Those packages were cool and everything like that, but when you play the game, you really want to play,” he said. “The fun stuff was all good and nice and everything, and I know we all had a good time with it, but we want to win football games and however we’ve got to do that, we’re going to do it.”
It’s likely that Dietrich-Smith will take over as the Packers’ starting center next season. Current starter Jeff Saturday, who will be 38-years old by the beginning of next year’s training camp, has not performed well in run-blocking this season and could get replaced in his spot by Dietrich-Smith. It’s also possible that Saturday could choose to retire, regardless of how Green Bay views its center position for the 2013 season.
But, until then, Dietrich-Smith believes he still has a lot to prove.
“I feel like I’ve still got to go out and earn it,” he said. “I’ve got to go out and earn my guy’s trust next to me and everybody’s trust out there every week. I don’t want to take it for granted. I’ve learned my lesson on that in this league before, and you have shortcomings when you do stuff like that.
“So I’m just going to go out there and work every day and make sure I show these guys that I’m reliable and I can be accountable out there.”