August 18, 2012

Left tackle and line depth are concerns for Packers offense

Coming off a 2011 season in which the Packers offense set franchise records for points (560), total net yards (6,482), and fewest giveaways (14), the spotlight rarely shined brightly on five of the most important positions on the field, the offensive line.

The line took care of business and provided Aaron Rodgers with enough protection to earn an MVP award, set the NFL’s passer rating record (122.5) and lead his team to a 15-1 regular season record.

But this year’s mix of franchise-protectors is less qualified than last year’s and lacks depth, leaving questions about the team’s ability to approach or match the offensive success of 2011. The rising star of the group, Bryan Bulaga remains confident.

“I think it’s a pretty good group, I mean I really do,” said Bulaga, who allowed just one sack in 2011, according to STATS LLC. ”You have a good mix of veterans and young guys…every guys brings a different skill set [and I think] it all gels well together.”

On paper the presumed starting group (left to right) of Newhouse, Lang, Saturday, Sitton and Bulaga seem like a very strong crew – and they are, but it’s likely this same five won’t start all 16 games. Lack of depth on the line is evident early in camp and showed in the Packers first preseason game against San Diego, in which Aaron Rodgers took multiple hits in just eight pass attempts.

“Our number one goal is taking care of the quarterback no matter what position you’re at, said guard T. J. Lang, who just inked a new 4-year deal late Monday night. “It’s certainly something we didn’t do up to our ability Thursday night [against San Diego].”

With Marshall Newhouse sidelined by a concussion and second-year backup Derek Sherrod still recovering from a broken leg suffered last year in week 15, Herb Taylor started at left tackle and had trouble keeping rookie linebacker Melvin Ingram in front of him.

“I think it’s just having confidence in the guys behind us,” said Bulaga. “We have some good players behind us, it’s just a matter of making sure they’re ready if they’re called upon.”

Taylor certainly didn’t look ready, prompting rookie Andrew Datko and free agent pickup Reggie Wells to each get a look at starting left tackle in Newhouse’s absence during this past weekend’s practices.  Uncertainty as to who backs up the most crucial spot on the offensive line can’t be comforting to the coaching staff.

What’s even more concerning is the unproven ability of the Packers starting blind-side protector, Marshall Newhouse. While he had an entire off-season to improve, 2011 was an embarrassing one for Newhouse. Here are a few stats that demonstrate Newhouse’s struggles last year:
  • Newhouse allowed 10½ sacks in, the most by a Green Bay player since tackle Tony Mandarich gave up 12½ in 1990*
  • Newhouse, with 41½, led the club in "pressures" allowed. That includes all sacks, knockdowns and hurries. Newhouse's total is the highest since the Journal Sentinel began recording the statistic in 1999, surpassing guard Daryn Colledge's 40½ in 2009*
  • Newhouse (14½) surrendered the second-highest number of “bad” runs on the team, defined as a gain for 1 yard or less excluding goal-line, short-yardage or kneel-down plays*
While Newhouse was thrown into the gauntlet last year as a rookie, he has much to improve on in 2012 and is expected to learn quickly in a high-pressure position on a Super Bowl caliber team.

"(Newhouse is) an ascending player who will learn from the mistakes made last year and will also enhance the positives he did last year," said James Campen, the Packers’ offensive line coach. "He did a lot of good things, he did some things he’s worked on already this offseason. I expect him to grow and be better than he was last year, no question."

How much better Newhouse plays may go a long way toward dictating how much better the Packers offense can be in 2012. The continuity of the starting five also figures to be important, as 13-year veteran and five-time pro bowler Jeff Saturday joins familiar faces Sitton, Lang and Bulaga.

“When you can work with the same five guys…it’s just a matter of getting Jeff in there and getting him used to the way the two guards play,” said Bulaga. “He’s doing a great job picking it up.”

Hopefully the starting five will use pre-season action to figure out each other’s tendencies, learn from mistakes and ultimately be a seamless unit come opening day against San Francisco.


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