Baranczyk/Christl column: Offensive line keys win over Bears

Dec. 26, 2011

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws under pressure by the Chicago Bears' Amobi Okoye on Sunday night at Lambeau Field. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette


At the moment, itís easy to make excuses for the Chicago Bears and their bleak chances of winning even a game without their starting quarterback, Jay Cutler.

And for good reason. The quarterback position is that important.

The Bears have lost five straight without Cutler after starting 7-3. The Indianapolis Colts are going to lose at least seven more games than last year minus Peyton Manning. On the flip side, both the Carolina Panthers with Cam Newton and the Detroit Lions with a healthy Matthew Stafford are going to win at least four more.

Injuries anywhere else normally donít have that kind of impact.

But the performance of the Green Bay Packersí offensive line in Sundayís 35-21 victory over the Bears shouldnít be minimized.

Granted, itís a lot easier winning with a makeshift line than without a star quarterback. But the Packers had only two starters from their opening day lineup at the same positions and, still, they won the battle of the line of scrimmage against one of the best front sevens in the game.

Offensive line

The coaches did their part by devising a game plan that helped out the line by moving the pocket and running play action. And Aaron Rodgers did his part by stepping up in the pocket, getting rid of the ball quickly and making some plays with his feet.

But, from the Packersí standpoint, the offensive line probably was the key to the game. It kept Rodgers comfortable and that allowed him to run the offense the way he wanted to run it.

The Bears flip-flopped their defensive ends, but Marshall Newhouse didnít have it easy whether he drew Julius Peppers or Israel Idoniije. Newhouse got beat a few times, but the saving grace was that there wasnít leakage elsewhere on those plays, and Rodgers was able to step up and make the throw. There were no jailbreaks.

T.J. Lang, after playing almost all season at guard, made a smooth transition to right tackle. Thatís not necessarily an easy adjustment. A tackle needs to be more patient. As a guard, the ball is snapped, and Lang has someone in his grill right now. Playing tackle, he has to wait and let the defensive end dictate to him how to react in the passing game.

Thatís what was so impressive about Langís play. He wasnít over-aggressive. He wasnít reaching. He set up nicely, let the end make his move and then he kept his hands up and compact. And he has good feet ó good enough to play guard or tackle.

The Bears didnít mount any real pressure up the gut and, automatically, that speaks well of the job that Evan Dietrich-Smith did. Itís hard to get a handle on him at this point. Sometimes he seems soft. This game he seemed more physical. Maybe the best way to put it for now is that heís serviceable and maybe better than some of the backup people theyíve had inside in recent years.

Consider, too, he has faced Ndamukong Suh and now the Bearsí tackles, so he has been tested.

Another thing, the line did a nice job of was run blocking. Scott Wells had another good game. Just as he has been doing at guard, Lang got off the ball quickly and also had the speed to cut off the backside defenders. Getting to the linebackers isnít an easy task for a tackle, and he was able to do it.

The run defense

Clay Matthews is the only player on defense rushing the passer, tackling well and making plays. For a team that tackled so well last year, itís shocking how bad it has gotten.

For starters, the defensive line was getting pushed back. That meant the linebackers didnít have clear angles to the ball. There were plays where C.J. Wilson and B.J. Raji just got blown off the ball. All of the linemen looked like their techniques were sloppy ó they were playing high. Clearly, they miss Ryan Pickett.

Erik Walden takes on blocks, but he doesnít get off them and get to the ball. Teams are running around him, underneath him. His punch is unbelievable. But then a playerís mind has to take him from A to B and get to the ball carrier. Itís like Walden has zero instincts.

A.J. Hawk had the big tackle for loss on an inside blitz before the two-minute warning. He shot a backside window and stopped the drive. Nice play. But most of the time, heís guilty of arm-tackling and not wrapping up.

The truth is, for a No. 5 pick, heís just not athletic enough. A big part of tackling is your feet ó you have to get your feet underneath you. When a player is reaching and grabbing as much as Hawk that means his feet are bad.

The corners are small and turn down tackles. Charlie Peprah is willing, but heís not athletic enough to be a good tackler. Heís slow to come to balance. Morgan Burnett seems to understand that itís part of the game, but heís not a hitter. He doesnít have the lust for it.

Special teams

That has been a big improvement this year. The Bears have Devin Hester, and their average starting point was the 20-yard line. Bum wheel or not, Hester is still scary. By comparison, the Packersí average start was the 35.

Thatís huge. With the defense struggling the way it is, the Packers have to win the battle of field position.

Former Press-Gazette sports editor Cliff Christl and former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offer their analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.

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