Offensive line likely to stay thin against Bears

Dec. 19, 2011

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) shows his frustration after a dropped pass during Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette


The Green Bay Packers almost certainly will start Sunday’s game against Chicago with the same offensive line configuration that finished Sunday’s loss at Kansas City.

That’s the same group that gave up three sacks in the final nine minutes and 22 seconds.

What other choice does coach Mike McCarthy have? He will be missing three of his top four tackles.

Already without left tackle Chad Clifton, who has been out since Oct. 9 with hamstring and back injuries, the Packers also lost starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga and his backup, rookie Derek Sherrod, within a quarter and a half of each other on Sunday.

Bulaga was diagnosed on Monday with what McCarthy called a kneecap sprain and appears unlikely to be ready for the Bears game. Sherrod was still in Kansas City recovering from emergency surgery to repair his broken right leg and will be placed on season-ending injured reserve soon.

That left second-year pro Marshall Newhouse as the only natural tackle on the roster starting Tuesday. And Newhouse, who took over for Clifton at left tackle, is coming off another shaky performance.

“I’m trying to remember if we’ve been quite this thin,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said Monday. “I know we’ve done a lot of musical chairs over the years, subbed guys in and out, but this is going to be potentially unique. We’ll see how it all shakes out here over the next couple of days, but we might have to be doing some extra tutorials with some guys, no question.”

The Packers almost certainly will sign another tackle this week to take Sherrod’s roster spot. They could promote Chris Campbell from the practice squad, but he’s viewed more as a developmental player who needs more time in the system.

The only other offensive lineman on the roster that would be available to play this week is undrafted rookie Ray Dominguez. He is listed as a guard and tackle, but he struggled in training camp at tackle and then moved inside after a couple of weeks.

Regardless of who they sign, it won’t be someone who can start Sunday against the Bears, so they will have to go with T.J. Lang at right tackle. Lang, the regular starter at left guard, hadn’t taken any reps at right tackle this season before he was forced to move when Sherrod’s right leg snapped midway through the fourth quarter.

To take Lang’s spot, the Packers turned to Evan Dietrich-Smith, who on his second play got beat inside by Allen Bailey for a sack. Dietrich-Smith, who had started the previous two games at right guard in place of Josh Sitton, would start again at left guard.

That means only two of the Packers’ opening-day starting offensive linemen — Sitton and center Scott Wells — would start in their original positions against the Bears.

“Whoever’s in there playing, we’ve got to roll with,” Sitton said. “Prove that we can, as a team, overcome that.”

One thing the Packers can’t do even if they wanted to is replace Newhouse, even after he struggled with Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali, who had three sacks. Two of Hali’s sacks came on the Packers’ second scoring drive. Hali also beat Newhouse, and then fell into Sherrod, breaking his leg.

It was the second time in three weeks that Newhouse struggled in pass protection, although both times were against premier pass rushers. The other was the New York Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul.

“The early sack/fumble on the first drive of the game, it wasn’t all his fault,” Philbin said. “Now obviously it looked terrible. Certainly, Hali is a quality player and a very competitive guy. He had some production in the game, no doubt about it. Again, I don’t think it was all, he took Marshall to school every play, but there’s a couple of plays we’ve got to do better.”

While the offensive line situation looks dire now, especially considering its final two opponents — Chicago and Detroit — boast strong defensive fronts, there’s a chance it could improve before the Packers open the playoffs in the divisional round on either Jan. 14 or 15.

Though Bulaga’s injury is to the same knee, his left, that kept him out of two games earlier in the season, it’s a different injury. McCarthy wouldn’t completely rule out Bulaga but said he would be “challenged” to play this week. In McCarthy’s language, that usually means a player won’t play.

Clifton is scheduled to return to the individual drills portion of practice on Wednesday. He had hoped to return earlier this month but sustained a back injury while rehabilitating the torn hamstring he sustained at Atlanta more than two months ago. At the earliest, perhaps Clifton could play in the regular-season finale against the Lions on Jan. 1.

“I think we’re prepared for this,” McCarthy said Monday. “It’s something we talk about. It’s something we talked about in the team meeting five minutes ago. We’re going to game plan like we always do. We’re not going to restrict anything, and we’ll put together a good plan to beat the Chicago Bears.”

Despite all the shuffling on the offensive line, Philbin said the group wasn’t solely responsible for the Packers’ worst offensive showing of the season in Sunday’s 19-14 loss to the Chiefs. They were shut out in the first half for the first time all season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had his lowest yardage total (235) and passer rating (80.1) and threw only one touchdown pass, the first time all season in which he didn’t throw at least two.

“I think sometimes it’s easy to say our line got handled, it got whipped,” Philbin added. “Certainly there were some plays where we’ve got to protect better. Sometimes we’ve got to get open a little bit quicker, et cetera, et cetera.” and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.

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