Packers must protect Rodgers to beat 49ers
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers is capable of making throws under pressure at an elite level. His combination of speed, scrambling ability and arm strength all make it look easy when defenses start caving in the pocket and yet he still rockets a completed pass downfield to a tightly covered receiver. But even a quarterback with Rodgers’ talent needs time to throw to be most effective in the passing game. That was highlighted during the regular season when the number of times Rodgers was sacked directly correlated to wins and losses for the Green Bay Packers.
In the five games Green Bay lost this season, Rodgers was sacked 26 times. In the 11 games the Packers won, he was sacked 25 times.
For the Packers to go into San Francisco on Saturday and upset the 49ers in a divisional-round playoff game, Green Bay’s offensive line will need to protect Rodgers better than it did in a Week 1 loss.
"Whenever you're facing a front seven like San Francisco has, everything starts with the offensive line," left guard T.J. Lang said. "It's going to be key for us to play our best here to date. We understand that it's going to be up to us to keep Aaron clean, let him make some plays back there in the pocket. That's going to be a huge factor in how this game turns out."
Entering the playoffs, no quarterback had been sacked more this season than Rodgers. Though part of that is due to Rodgers’ desire to limit interceptions and keep plays alive longer than most quarterbacks, the Packers’ offensive line will be responsible for allowing the Most Valuable Player time to do his best work against a physical San Francisco defense.
"It's something we say all the time, that you can't have a time clock because Aaron's a guy that likes to get out of pocket and make some plays that way," Lang said. "And when he does, that can be very effective. We get a lot of big plays out of that. So your mentality when you're blocking for him is make sure you stay engaged. …
"You've got to stay locked up with those guys, match their effort. As long as they're moving, you're moving to try and stay in front of them. Whenever we do that, we give Aaron some time, he tends to make a lot of big plays. That's definitely something that we work on a lot and we try to make sure we're good at."
In Week 1, the 49ers sacked Rodgers three times, which is actually the lowest number of sacks in a Packers loss this season. However, Rodgers was rushed and in trouble far more than his sacks total suggests. He scrambled for gains on five plays, each one a product of San Francisco forcing him to adjust and run.
"They came into our house and played better than us because they got the win," Lang said. "They've got a lot of playmakers, guys that can hustle around and make some plays. For us, I think having played them earlier in the season benefits us a little bit, just that we know the speed, the strength that they have on their defense.
"(We have to) make sure that, as an offensive line, we're limiting their production from their front guys."
The 49ers finished the regular season ranked 11th in the NFL in sacks with 38. More than half of those team sacks came from second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who was second in the league with 19.5 sacks.
Green Bay’s offensive line is still adjusting to a few new faces. Veteran center Jeff Saturday was replaced in the starting lineup by Evan Dietrich-Smith only three weeks ago. Undrafted rookie Don Barclay became the starting right tackle in early December after Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending injury.
The results in pass protection, with the exception of Week 17, have actually improved with Dietrich-Smith and Barclay on the field.
"I think Evan has done a great job," Rodgers said. "I’ve been a fan of his for a couple years, (and I’m) excited about his growth. I think he brings a good energy to our offense and helps us with some of the up-tempo stuff we like to do.
"And Don has really grown. I think this has been very beneficial for him moving forward, to be able to play extensively at right tackle, and he’s given us some stability there. We still want him to get off to a good start every week, but you worry less and less about Don every week and that’s a tribute to how he’s played and how he’s prepared."
Nearly every aspect of both the Packers and 49ers has changed since their meeting on Sept. 9, but Green Bay’s offensive line has proven recently that it has improved in keeping Rodgers on his feet.
"The last couple of weeks, they've performed well," wide receiver James Jones said. "A couple of sacks, maybe one or two of them was on the receivers. But they've performed well these last couple of weeks. I'm sure they'll be up to the task to go out there and handle their business."
There are plenty of complexities with the X’s and O’s when it comes to the proper execution of pass protection for Rodgers. But, in its simplest form, if Rodgers has time to throw, the third-seeded Packers can beat the second-seeded 49ers. If the offensive line struggles and Rodgers is in a hurry, Green Bay’s chances of winning will drastically decrease.
"We feel confident," Lang said. "We definitely know that this week's going to be a huge challenge for us, but I think we're ready for that challenge and we're excited about it."
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