It's been nearly two years since Bryan Bulaga last suited up for a regular-season game.
After a hip injury ended his 2012 season after nine games, the Green Bay Packers' tackle partially tore his anterior cruciate ligament in last year's Family Night scrimmage and spent the entire year on injured reserve.
On Thursday night, Bulaga makes his return to the right tackle post he's vacated for the past 26 regular-season games, ending what's been a long and arduous road back to the field.
"It's great to get back on the field for regular-season football, there's no doubt about that," Bulaga said. "I'm excited about it. This is the best my body has felt in a long time. I'm excited and ready to go. It's going to be a great challenge."
The Packers' offensive line is in for a significant test right off the bat against a Seattle Seahawks' defensive front that gave them fits the last time the two teams met inside CenturyLink Field in 2012.
Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half of the 14-12 defeat that quickly became known more for its controversial "Fail Mary" ending than the slow start. Bulaga gave up four sacks and three quarterback hits in the loss, according to Pro Football Focus.
Some of those Seattle pass rushers like defensive end Chris Clemons are gone, but the NFL's reigning No. 1 total defense still presents challenges. The offensive line rebounded to not allow a sack in the second half of that game. Now, they want to carry it through a full four quarters.
"We just didn't play good enough in the first half," Bulaga said. "I think just going from first to second half, we shored up the protection a little bit more and we were able to effectively run the football and run between the tackles and churn up some yards that way. That was able to help out the pass blocking. We just didn't play good football in the first half. That's about as simple as it goes."
The Packers were forced into a last-minute substitution on the offensive line when center JC Tretter went down with a knee injury, but there's confidence in rookie Corey Linsley to jump in an offensive line that made strides last season, particularly in the run game.
They're still a relatively young line, but guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have now been starting together for three years. The return of Bulaga and maturation of left tackle David Bakhtiari at the tackle spots is why Packers coach Mike McCarthy feels this year's line could be the best of his nine-year tenure.
Bulaga played 77 snaps in the first three preseason games. Stationed back at right tackle where he's made all 33 of his NFL starts, this is an important year for both the Packers and the former first-round pick, who's an unrestricted free agent after the season.
"He's gotten better every week," offensive line coach James Campen said. "He always is a confident guy, but he's really confident in his technique and those things. Each week, he's progressing and gotten better and better, and coming along.
"He's bigger and stronger than he was last year, so he's definitely on track."
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