Packers 9-0, still seeking protection for Rodgers
At this point, there don't appear to be too many things that could threaten to derail the Green Bay Packers' season. A significant injury to Aaron Rodgers would be one of them.
So when it comes to the 9-0 Packers' ever-shrinking list of major concerns, Rodgers' pass protection is worth keeping an eye on - especially after he took some big hits in a 45-7 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night.
Rodgers isn't taking the pounding he did in 2009, when the Packers gave up an NFL-high 51 sacks. But he also doesn't appear to be getting quite the same level of protection he did during last season's run to the Super Bowl.
His team might have a perfect record coming off a blowout victory, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy doesn't think it's nitpicking to take a close look at Rodgers' protection.
''You have to correct the mistakes,'' McCarthy said. ''If you don't, you're never going to learn. If you want to talk about the protection, that'll be looked at.''
The Packers have given up 23 sacks this season, putting them in a five-way tie for 10th-most in the NFL - a group that includes the NFC North rival Chicago Bears, who until recent weeks had been regarded as one of the worst pass protecting teams in the league.
For Rodgers and the Packers, the biggest problem is the trend seems to be heading in the wrong direction.
Rodgers generally stayed upright early in the season, when the Packers gave up seven sacks in their first four games. Now the Packers have given up 16 in their last five games - including 11 in their last three.
''That's a big thorn in our side right now,'' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. ''We've got to do a better job there. Because that stuff catches up to you. You can't overcome that stuff. The more negative plays that you have, the tougher it becomes. I'd say that's the biggest thing as we move forward.''
After some early breakdowns Monday night, guard Josh Sitton said the Packers recovered in the second half.
''We gave up some stupid sacks,'' Sitton said. ''There were a couple of communication errors in the first half. Really, when we break (down) the film, the fundamentals are probably going to be a lot better in the second half.''
Philbin said the Packers' protection issues have been tough to fix because there aren't necessarily a lot of common mistakes.
''If it was one person or one guy or one problem that continually manifested itself I think we would have been smart enough to figure that out and eliminate it by now,'' Philbin said. ''But it hasn't been. So it's been something we've got to work on. We've got to get it right.''
The most obvious factor is the absence of veteran left tackle Chad Clifton, who has been out since injuring his hamstring in the Oct. 9 victory at Atlanta. McCarthy said Clifton may return Dec. 4 at the New York Giants.
Backup Marshall Newhouse generally has earned good reviews from coaches since stepping in for Clifton, but Newhouse has had a hard time against Jared Allen in two games against the Vikings in less than a month.
Philbin sidestepped questions about Newhouse's performance Monday night, saying that the line needs to play better.
''We're a generous bunch a little bit, we kind of helped out some of those guys a couple times,'' Philbin said. ''Not to take anything away from their defense and their players, they have a good football team, but we were generous in terms of allowing them to get to our quarterback a couple of times.''
And as one of the league's more mobile quarterbacks, sacks aren't the only opportunity for Rodgers to take a beating. He hasn't been shy about scrambling, especially in recent weeks. Rodgers ran eight times for 52 yards against the San Diego Chargers, and six times for 21 yards against Minnesota on Monday.
He took a few crunching hits on running plays against the Vikings, including one by Allen on a third-and-5 play early in the third quarter.
Not that it made any difference in Rodgers' performance. He was 23 of 30 for 250 yards with four touchdowns and didn't throw an interception.
''We sacked him three or four times and that still wasn't enough,'' Allen said. ''(We've) got to go back to the drawing board, I guess.''
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