Green Bay Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith (62), making his first career start, faces Tennessee Titans linebacker Will Witherspoon (92) during Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Evan Dietrich-Smith wasn’t taking any chances as he prepared for his first career start at center on Sunday.
With influenza infiltrating the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line over the past week, the third-year offensive lineman made sure to carry a bottle of hand sanitizer with him so his opportunity wouldn’t be jeopardized.
After being named the starter Friday, Dietrich-Smith steered clear of the illness that cost three of his linemates practice time and pulled through during Sunday’s 55-7 shellacking of the Tennessee Titans.
In his first game in place of benched veteran Jeff Saturday, Dietrich-Smith was given a passing grade from his coach and teammates as he aided an offensive line that limited the Titans to one sack of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and lifted a run game that produced 117 yards without starting running back Alex Green. who was out with a concussion.
“I was just trying not to get sick,” Dietrich-Smith said. “I think that was the biggest challenge, making sure we had enough healthy bodies.”
While helping Rodgers set the no-huddle offense, Dietrich-Smith’s shining moment came on a quick 1-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings that came on the heels of a 34-yard screen pass to running back Ryan Grant in the third quarter.
After making sure the line was in position, Dietrich-Smith quickly snapped the ball to Rodgers, who immediately found the wide-open Jennings for the score to make it 34-0.
“I thought the mechanics of setting the line, it looked like we had things apexed in the run game in the middle of the line, so that’s obviously something that Evan was part of,” McCarthy said. “The leadership aspect of the center position is critical to the way we play on offense and that was definitely in place today and that’s a credit to Evan.”
Dietrich-Smith’s presence was especially helpful this week given the amount of turnover on the offensive line because of injury and illness.
Saturday missed the first two days of practice with back and neck injuries, and starting left guard T.J. Lang was the first to develop flu-like symptoms before being sent home from practice Thursday.
Right tackle Don Barclay and reserve Greg Van Roten also felt the effects of the illness and were listed as questionable entering Sunday’s game.
Although none of the three battling illness admitted to being 100 percent, the offensive line is hopeful they’ve put the bug behind them while marching into the postseason with Dietrich-Smith at center.
When the next round of flu shots becomes available, however, the offensive line might be a little more willing.
“I think I may take Doc up on it next time because I’ll tell you, that was one of the worst things I’ve ever been through,” Lang said with a laugh. “Just not eating, not sleeping, not being able to drink. It hurts. It sucks. That’s the one sickness I’ve ever had where I was ready to pack it in. Just glad I got over it. Hopefully, it’s out of the locker room.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.