Packers' O-line expects to keep Rodgers upright
The Green Bay Packers' offensive line got off to such a bad start last year that it's even serving as a punchline for the satirical newspaper The Onion.
In its tongue-in-cheek NFL preview this week, the paper's website wrote, ''After giving up 50 sacks in 2009, Green Bay's offensive line appears to have forgiven Aaron Rodgers for whatever he did.''
The Packers can't hide from the pass protection failings that nearly derailed their season last year - they actually gave up a league-worst 51 sacks, as backup Matt Flynn wasn't completely spared from the carnage - but they're using their failures as a rallying point going into Sunday's regular season opener at Philadelphia.
''As we go through our offseason evaluations, sit and study things, where we need to improve, that's obviously at the top of the list,'' offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. ''We can't go through another year like that. And so, yeah, I think for our staff, our players, there's hopefully some resolve and determination that let's get this thing back to where it needs to be.''
Center Scott Wells said the line has something to prove.
''We don't want to start the way we did last year,'' Wells said. ''Really, we played basically two different types of offense. The first half of the year was not very good and the second half was a lot better. So we want to go out from the get-go and play better than we did in the second half of last year. So we want to build on that, and move forward and improve at the same time.''
The Packers' biggest reason for optimism is right tackle Mark Tauscher, back at the spot that has belonged to him for most of the past decade. Tauscher knows the Packers' offense is loaded with talent and potential, and could be one of the league's best if the offensive line holds up its end of the bargain.
''It's now a fresh season, new start, and we realize we need to play better than we did last year to give our offense a chance to be as successful as we can be,'' Tauscher said.
Tauscher played a critical role in stabilizing the line last year, beginning the season out of football while he recovered from a knee injury and then re-signing with the Packers in October. He eventually reclaimed his starting spot after the Packers' ill-fated attempt to make Allen Barbre the starter.
After giving up a jaw-dropping 41 sacks in their first nine games, they allowed 10 in their final seven of the regular season.
Now Tauscher is back for a full training camp and season, feeling better than last year.
''Obviously, we've got a right tackle playing for us that's played a lot of football here in Green Bay,'' Philbin said. ''And no disrespect to the one we had last year, but we were trying somebody out in essence at right tackle. We've got a veteran player there who's played a lot of games in the National Football League.''
Offensive line coach James Campen even says Tauscher - a player never known for his bodybuilder-like physique - has slimmed down.
''He's in shape and he looks good,'' Campen said. ''He looks as good as he ever has. His weight's down, so I'm sure he's very confident.''
Another reason for optimism: Rodgers wasn't sacked once in the preseason, and their preseason opponents weren't all playing vanilla defensive schemes.
''Cleveland pressured us quite a bit, and they did a good job picking it up,'' Campen said. ''Now, if you ask them, was it always perfect? No. Was the quarterback hit a couple times? Yes. And they want to eliminate those as well.''
Sunday's game at Philadelphia will be a good test for the line's confidence. The Eagles are known for their exotic blitzes in recent years, and Packers coaches don't know if the more base-oriented defensive scheme they showed in the preseason is an indication of what they'll do in the regular season.
''You know going into the first game that a good amount of it is going to be unscouted, it's going to be a lot of things they didn't do in preseason they're saving for the regular season,'' Wells said. ''A lot of it's going to be relying on your experience, of the guys around you, and myself to make the right calls.''
And a strong performance against the Eagles would be a big first step for five guys out to prove they're no longer a league punchline.
''Just knowing what that was like and what that felt like and the criticisms, which were all just and correct, they don't want to go back to that,'' Campen said.