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Green Bay Packers' pass protection: 'We definitely need to shore it up'

Aug. 27, 2011
 

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is sacked in the red zone by Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney in the second quarter of Friday's preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette

Leaky protection

Total sacks allowed by team, highest to lowest, from 2008-2010:

Pittsburgh 142
San Francisco 139
Oakland 132
Washington 130
Jacksonville 124
Green Bay 123
St. Louis 123
Detroit 122
Chicago 120
Buffalo 118
Kansas City 114
Minnesota 113
Seattle 112
Philadelphia 110
Baltimore 109
Cincinnati 108
Arizona 104
Carolina 103
Miami 98
Dallas 96
Tampa Bay 95
New England 91
Cleveland 90
Houston 89
San Diego 89
New York Jets 88
Denver 86
New York Giants 76
Atlanta 67
New Orleans 59
Tennessee 54
Indianapolis 43

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His horseshoe mustache appeared to be intact after a half of action Friday.

That was Aaron Rodgers’ good fortune on a somewhat coarse night in Indianapolis, where the Green Bay Packers quarterback dodged several close shaves in what figures to be his last big tune-up for the regular season.

“A little tired, a little sore,” Rodgers said after the Packers pulled out a 24-21 exhibition win over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The sting of being sacked four times in the first two quarters lingered for Rodgers and overshadowed some positive things the Packers accomplished in their penultimate preseason contest.

Further production from coach Mike McCarthy’s newly prevalent no-huddle offense, steadily improving third-string QB Graham Harrell’s leading an 11-point outburst in the final minute and Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal of 50 yards as time expired didn’t go unnoticed. Yet, considerable attention after the game was given to what is percolating as an annoying trend as Green Bay’s Sept. 8 season opener draws closer.

“No one likes to see sacks. You don’t want to give them up,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “I don’t think it’s worrisome. We just need to make sure we get it right here, and that’s something we need to continue to work on.

“I don’t think anyone’s worried about it, but we definitely need to shore it up.”

Rodgers’ otherwise spectacular preseason — he has completed 34 of 43 passes (79.1 percent) for 375 yards and three touchdowns without an interception for an efficiency rating of 126.3 (No. 1 in the NFL before Saturday’s games) — has been tempered some by the Packers’ protection issues. He has played the equivalent of a little more than one full game in the first three preseason outings and been sacked six times, highest among this year’s projected starters in the league entering play Saturday.

“The (four) sacks was a negative,” McCarthy said after Friday’s game.

Green Bay went the entire first half with the offensive line McCarthy plans to go with on opening night against New Orleans at Lambeau Field. Whereas much focus was on third-year player T.J. Lang and how he would respond to being named the starter at left guard last week following his early camp battle with first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, veterans Chad Clifton and Josh Sitton stood out for the mistakes they made.

Clifton, the team’s longtime rock at left tackle, had a rough time contending with Colts All-Pro right end Dwight Freeney’s assortment of bull rushes and spin moves. Freeney beat Clifton on one of each to get to Rodgers for two sacks in back-to-back series for the Packers in the second quarter.

Freeney’s first takedown came on third-and-4 from the Colts’ 6-yard line, forcing Green Bay to settle for a short field goal by Crosby at the end of a second straight long drive led by Rodgers in the no-huddle. Rodgers previously directed a 10-play, 81-yard series that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermichael Finley.

The Packers penetrated the Indianapolis red zone three times in the first half but came away with just those 10 points and trailed 14-10 at halftime, when McCarthy pulled his starters.

A holding penalty by Clifton on first-year end John Chick nullified a 20-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to receiver Chastin West, who was wide open in the end zone, late in the second quarter. The promising drive, which started at the Packers’ 20, fizzled as right guard Sitton gave up a sack to veteran tackle Tommie Harris on third down and Crosby subsequently missed a 41-yard field goal.

“I think we did some good things out there, but we’ve got to finish those drives out with touchdowns,” Rodgers said. “We just hurt ourselves with penalties — and the penalty wiping out a touchdown — and then a couple (drives), just not able to convert there in the red zone.”

Sitton and Clifton, who summed up his performance as “just a bad day at the office,” didn’t make excuses for their breakdowns in pass protection.

“I think everything that happened (Friday) with the sacks is all just winning your one-on-one battles, and I think when we watch (the game tape), it’ll come down to fundamentals,” Sitton said. “We just need to get that better, winning the one-on-one battles and (having better) fundamentals when we’re tired out there.”

Rodgers also alluded to fatigue as possibly having an adverse effect on his linemen during the game. The retractable roof at Lucas Oil Stadium was left open, creating toasty conditions inside on an 80-degree night, and the Packers controlled the football for more than 17 minutes in the first half, spending the majority of that time in hurry-up mode.

“When you get tired on those long drives, you really have to concentrate on the fundamentals,” Sitton said.

The combination of perhaps some players’ not being in optimum physical condition right now in the wake of not having an offseason to train with the team because of the NFL lockout and the high rate of quarterback sacks thus far could influence how often McCarthy resorts to the no-huddle early in the season. After all, Green Bay’s first five games until the first weekend of October could be played in warm temperatures, including trips to Carolina in Week 2, Chicago in Week 3 and Atlanta (in a dome) in Week 5.

“We showed we need to make sure we’re ready to go by the time the season starts,” said Rodgers, who went 19-of-23 for 204 yards and the touchdown.

McCarthy’s inclination in the past has been to play Rodgers and other starters on offense no more than a series or two, if not give them any playing time, in the final preseason game. That would leave the No. 1 offensive line little opportunity in Thursday’s matchup against Kansas City to try to rectify things with the pass-protection woes that have cropped up this preseason.

Five sacks Friday, including one of Harrell, left the Packers with a league-worst 14 sacks before Saturday’s action.

The six sacks absorbed by Rodgers, who wasn’t sacked once in the preseason the previous two years, is no trifling matter for the coaching staff. From the time Rodgers took over as Green Bay’s quarterback at the start of the 2008 season, the Packers have allowed 123 sacks, tied for sixth highest in the league in that span.

“If you look at our offensive production since (Rodgers has) become the quarterback, the one thing that doesn’t fit what we’re all about is the amount of sacks we’ve had over a three-year period,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said earlier this month. “We used to be in the top five of fewest sacks (before 2008). So, that’s an emphasis.”

tmcmaho2@greenbay.gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ToddMcMahon23.

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