Packers look to shore up line, lower sack totals
The Green Bay Packers went into training camp focused on doing a better job of protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The early returns have not been encouraging.
Having allowed nine sacks through two preseason games, the team's protection problems are deeper than simply deciding whether to start veteran T.J. Lang or rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod at left guard.
In the team's 28-20 preseason victory over Arizona on Friday, Packers quarterbacks were sacked four times: Rodgers twice, and backup Matt Flynn twice. Against Cleveland in the preseason opener, Rodgers emerged unscathed while Flynn (twice) and No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell (three times) were the victims.
Against the Cardinals, Rodgers was sacked twice during the No. 1 offense's second series. Later, Flynn took over for Rodgers and was immediately greeted by a sack as O'Brien Schofield blew past Lang (who was at left tackle at the time) to push the pocket right into defensive tackle Dan Williams.
Schofield later drilled Flynn on a third-and-16 play when rookie running back Alex Green failed to pick him up on a blitz. Schofield finally got his sack on a third-and-13 play late in the third quarter, when he went past Sherrod at left tackle and stripped Flynn.
As a team, the Packers have given up 123 sacks over the last three seasons, an average of 41 per year.
In the five years before Rodgers took over, Brett Favre and his backups absorbed an average of 20.6 per year. While Rodgers' ability to extend plays with his feet is a factor in the increased number of sacks, his sack numbers (34 in 2008, a league-high 50 in 2009 and 31 last year) are still too high, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said.
''If you look at our offensive production since (Rodgers) has become the quarterback, the one thing that doesn't fit what we're all about is the amount of sacks we've had over a three-year period,'' Philbin said. ''We rank about 27th in the league, where we used to be in the top five of fewest sacks. So that's an emphasis.
''We did not get off to a good start with five sacks (against Cleveland). That's not anywhere near where we want to be. So it's a little bit frustrating. We've got to do a better job. We can't operate with those kind of sacks on a regular basis.''
Given how much Sherrod struggled at both left guard and left tackle against Arizona, McCarthy's announcement Monday that Lang will start Friday's game at Indianapolis and, in turn, the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against New Orleans hardly came as a surprise.
Sherrod, who was playing out of position at left guard after playing only at tackle in college at Mississippi State, sprained his knee against the Cardinals, but McCarthy indicated that the injury had little bearing on the decision.
Lang, meanwhile, was rewarded for his professional approach after the coaches decided to give Sherrod the majority of the first-team snaps in practice at the start of training camp.
''This three-week battle, it's been a challenging process,'' Lang said. ''Just competing with Derek, having a rookie come in and challenge you for a spot, the way he was playing - overall, it made me a better player and made me want to earn that spot even more. Now that that spot is mine, it's my job to hold onto it now.
''I've been here long enough to know that the depth chart can change day by day. It's my job now to play to a higher level and be an impact player for this team. I don't want to come in as a new starter for this team and have any glaring holes. I want to fill that spot and do my job. I'm definitely excited to take it to another level now that I know what's going to happen.''
Lang, whose second season was derailed by a wrist injury that occurred late in his rookie season, required surgery and forced him to miss most of the offseason work while it healed before last season, admitted that Sherrod's treatment motivated him.
''Honestly, it made me work that much harder. I don't know if that was their goal, to kind of light a fire under my ass, but whatever they did, it definitely worked,'' Lang said. ''My first personal goal coming into this year was I wanted to be a starter. I feel like this is my third year, I know the offense. I can get out there and do the job. Just the fact that I didn't have anything handed to me, I had to work for that spot, makes me appreciate it that much more. Now I'm ready to set new goals for myself - be an impact player and be a guy that goes out there game after game and be consistent and continue to do my job.''
NOTES: Right OLB Frank Zombo, the leading candidate to start opposite Clay Matthews, broke his shoulder blade before the game against Arizona and will be sidelined for a ''significant'' amount of time, McCarthy said. Zombo was actually injured in pre-game warm-ups in a collision with FB John Kuhn during a drill but played roughly 30 snaps with the injury. . McCarthy gave DE Mike Neal (knee sprain) a chance of playing against the Colts. . Rookie WR Randall Cobb bruised both knees but avoided a more serious injury when he was hit low on a kickoff return against the Cardinals.