Protecting Rodgers the key for Packers in Cardinals rematch
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The most important member of the Green Bay Packers isn't necessarily Aaron Rodgers.
For Green Bay to have any chance at beating Arizona on Saturday night in a NFC divisional round playoff game, the offensive line will have to do a much better job of protecting the quarterback.
The last time these teams met, on Dec. 27, the Cardinals had virtually unfettered access into the backfield with eight sacks of Rodgers and nine overall.
The game didn't exactly make for enjoyable viewing for the offensive line during film review this week.
"It's not fun to watch it," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said Wednesday. "It was a learning tape to take a look at, correct and move on."
With the line battered by injuries, the Packers experienced one of their lowest points of the season in the 38-8 loss at Arizona. The nightmarish trip included two fumbles lost by Rodgers on sacks that led to Cardinals defensive touchdowns each time.
Rodgers was sacked 13 times over the final two weeks of the regular season, most in the league during that stretch. Starting left tackle David Bakhtiari was out with an ankle injury during that same period.
Momentum turned during last week's 35-18 victory over Washington. The Packers found a solid replacement for Bakhtiari when jack-of-all-trades J.C. Tretter got the start.
Protection improved as the game progressed. The Packers' quick tempo added energy and kept the Redskins' defense on the field.
"Eventually, their bulls got a little less power, their speed rush is a little slower and everything kind of slows down for you, and that plays to your advantage a little bit," Tretter said about how a fast-paced attack helps the offensive line.
Tretter's outing gives the Packers some peace of mind that they can effectively replace Bakhtiari if Rodgers' regular blind-side protector remains sidelined.
Tretter got help at times on the edge, but Rodgers liked the protection overall even when Tretter was going one on one. The Packers also got the ball out quickly to receivers who made big plays.
"Feel a lot better," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think it's clearly something that, one of the things that we needed to improve on from prior games, and JC Tretter gave us that."
Arizona coach Bruce Arians said the game wasn't the beat-down that the score seemed to reflect.
"I don't really think we dominated them in any form or fashion," Arians said, "other than we got a couple of good fumbles and picked them up and scored with them. They're too good, and we didn't get their best shot because they didn't have their best players."
More help might be on the way for Green Bay with Bakhtiari practicing on Wednesday on a limited basis. Bulaga is healthy again after leaving the Arizona game with an ankle injury.
The Cardinals know another nine-sack performance isn't likely.
"I don't think you ever set out with those kind of numbers in mind," Arizona defensive coordinator James Bettcher said after Wednesday's practice. "But I've said it all along, the biggest thing is disruption."
If Rodgers doesn't have time to throw, the offense can get thrown off-kilter. The running game has been inconsistent, so it's a mystery each week as to whether tailbacks Eddie Lacy and James Starks can relieve the pressure.
There is much that can be done to annoy the Green Bay quarterback even if he's not on the ground, Bettcher said.
"We've got to keep him throwing off his back foot," he said. "We've got to keep his eyes up. In other words we can't let him have clear sight lines down the field."
And, of course, Arizona is well aware of Rodgers' ability to evade the rush, run around in the backfield, then get the ball away to a receiver.
"We know it's a scramble drill," Bettcher said. "Every down is off-time throws, even more in the red zone, but we've got to be great in plastering coverage."
Arizona will be without one of its best pass rushers. Outside linebacker Alex Okafor injured his toe during the team's weekend off and is out for the playoffs. Arians wouldn't say what Okafor was doing when he was hurt.
Bettcher mentioned four players who would rotate into Okafor's spot. One would be Dwight Freeney, who had three sacks (one a strip sack) against the Packers. He plays only in passing situations.