Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga (75) points to Chicago Bears defensive end Henry Melton (69) after Bulaga was flagged for a false start in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette
The Green Bay Packers are expected to begin their wild-card playoff game Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles with 10 different starters from the group that took the field in a 51-45 post-season loss to the Arizona Cardinals last year.
Seven of those previous starters are out due to injury and one is serving a season-long suspension. That has created new opportunities across the field, but it also puts new contributors in important positions with little playoff experience.
Five of those new starters – right tackle Bryan Bulaga, linebacker Desmond Bishop, safety Charlie Peprah, linebacker Erik Walden and nickel cornerback back Sam Shields – have a combined five playoff games on their resume.
Bulaga and Shields were in college at this time last year. Bishop, Peprah and Walden account for all five of those playoff games, but none of the three played a significant role or had a single defensive tackle.
“We’ve had a lot of change, a lot of new guys go out there,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Hopefully the veterans can do a better job than coaches in terms of talking to them about playoff intensity and what it’s like and all that. You aren’t going to change dramatically. You are who you are.
“Try to be as focused and zeroed in on what you have to do as you can. You block out the distractions, go to work and say we’ve got to do the same things we’ve been doing.”
There wasn’t a sense of concern regarding the situation this week as the team prepared for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Lincoln Financial Field. But it’s impossible to ignore the contrasts.
Bishop was a special teams player in 2009 and played a few snaps in the Psycho package. Now he’s the second leading tackler (121) on the No. 2 scoring defense (15 points per game) in the NFL.
“It’s a little pressure, but the good kind of pressure,” Bishop said. “The kind you want to help you in games like this.
“When I wanted this opportunity it wasn’t to just play and be a normal guy. I wanted to be the best. That’s how I approach every game. The playoffs just heighten that.”
A year ago Walden was sitting at home as a member of the Miami Dolphins, who didn’t qualify for the playoffs. He had a combined 15 tackles in his first eight games with the Packers after being signed Oct. 27. Walden started last week, posted 16 tackles, was named NFC defensive player of the week and will get his second consecutive start with Frank Zombo (knee) ruled out.
“There’s a lot more sense of urgency and it’s definitely more intense,” Walden said. “But our coaches are doing a great job of keeping it steady and not being tight. They’re keeping it the same. It’s football, man. We’ve got to go out here and have fun.
“We’re professionals. We’ve got a job to do. All that outside stuff, you have to distance yourself from all that.”
The Packers have been in playoff mode for a while now. They had to win their last two regular-season games to qualify for the postseason. They are used to the one-and-done scenario.
“We’ve had about three games that have already been like playoff atmosphere games,” Peprah said. “We’re just keeping it like it’s another game and atmosphere will take care of itself on Sunday. It’s like the Chicago game, the Minnesota game at home, the Atlanta game. From that aspect, I think we’re prepared for the big stage.
“In these games, the small mistakes are magnified. That’s the only difference. There’s no second chances. There’s no next week. … You’ve got to play perfect football.”
One player who is directly benefitting from an extra week of football is Bulaga. The last memory fans have of him is a four-penalty day against the Chicago Bears in the season finale. He’ll be expected to pick up an exotic blitz package used by the Eagles.
Bulaga has already played three more games than he did during his senior season at Iowa and is now protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers on a Super Bowl contender.
“I was in the training room the other day getting my ankles taped by Pepper (Burress) and he said, ‘Right now you were done playing. You’re almost coming into another quarter of the season,’” Bulaga said. “That’s the way you look at it. The Orange Bowl was a week ago. That’s where my season ended last year. When you’re preparing for a bowl game, you’re just practicing. You don’t get games like you do here.
“It’s different, but it’s exciting. I love it.”