Lang, Sitton come through when it counts
T.J. Lang dug his cleats into Lambeau Field's grass.
On the first play of Sunday night's showdown against the Chicago Bears, adrenaline was flowing. A national TV audience was watching. Lang's opponent was ready to run him over.
Bears nose tackle Jeremiah Ratliff dug in, too. On the snap, he bull rushed the Green Bay Packers' right guard. Nursing an ankle sprain, one-on-one, Lang stopped Ratliff like a brick wall.
"Took it on pretty well," Lang said. "So after that, I kind of felt comfortable that I wasn't going to have any setbacks."
For two weeks, Lang thought about whether his ankle would be healthy enough to suit up Sunday night. It was the same for left guard Josh Sitton, who played Sunday with a torn ligament in his left big toe.
The Packers dropped 42 points on the Bears with their starting guards in the lineup. Together, Lang and Sitton helped keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers' jersey clean.
Rookie center Corey Linsley said he "heard rumors," but he didn't know until game time if Lang and Sitton would be able to play. Lower-body injuries are tricky, especially for offensive linemen. In the trenches, a mess of humanity makes for treacherous footing.
"They're tough, gritty guys," Linsley said. "Just their personalities, you know they're going to play. It says a lot about our toughness. Those two guys, it says a lot about them more than anybody else. Foot injuries, ankle injuries screw with your head as an offensive lineman. For them to do that, it's unbelievable."
There's less uncertainty for Lang and Sitton this week. Both practiced Thursday, though they were limited. With time, the injuries should feel only better. When the Philadelphia Eagles arrive at Lambeau Field for a 3:25 p.m. game Sunday, there's every reason to expect the Packers will have their starting guards in the lineup.
That wasn't the case last week.
Offensive line coach James Campen watched how Lang and Sitton pass-blocked early against the Bears. For Campen, pass-blocking provides a good indication of whether an offensive lineman's ankles and feet can hold up. It requires rapid footwork, feet chopping.
Campen saw Lang handle the bull rush. It gave the coach confidence.
"I think any time when you have something that's bugging you," Campen said, "and you take on the toughest task, which would be a power rush or some sort of hard charge on a run play or something, and you get through that, then it gives yourself a lot of confidence."
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Sitton never had a play that put his mind to ease.
All night, he said his toe made it impossible to get comfortable. His mobility was fine. In the second quarter, Sitton and Lang made downfield blocks that helped spring running back Eddie Lacy for a 56-yard touchdown on a screen pass.
Sitton said he often didn't feel as well as he played.
"I was just out there getting the job done," Sitton said. "I felt like I was limited in some things I was doing. So I knew that I was going to be OK after warmups, you know. But it still didn't feel great."
Coming off a bye, neither guard knew whether they'd be able to play when last week began. Lang said last Thursday was the first day he thought there might be a chance. When he had no setbacks after a workout Friday, he knew he'd at least be in the starting lineup.
Sitton met with the team's medical staff two days before kickoff. He wanted to make sure there was no risk of further injury if he played. When the medical staff cleared him, his decision was made. Sitton's left shoe was specially made. It had a metal plate in the sole, preventing it from bending and giving him some extra protection.
Lang said he and Sitton kept in constant communication throughout the week. Each day, they charted the other's progress.
"I was asking him how he was feeling, if he was thinking he was going to play. He was asking me the same questions," Lang said. "Honestly, we were pretty both probably the exact same as far as how far along we were recovering-wise, and the pain that we had to deal with. So yeah, we were right there next to each other in the training room, out at practice watching, whatever it was.
"We both went through the workout Friday together, Saturday didn't have any setbacks, and then from that point decided that we were going to play."
Lang and Sitton watched film of Chicago, made sure their minds were ready. On the practice field, they watched.
Neither got a rep last week.
"There's really not a lineman that doesn't like to practice," Campen said.
Sitton said the familiarity with their rival made last week easier. As divisional opponents, he and Lang have played the Bears twice each season over their careers, three times in 2010.
Philadelphia is a regular matchup for Green Bay. The Packers hosted the Eagles last season, and Sunday will make it four of the past five seasons. Still, there's no replicating the familiarity of a divisional opponent.
"It's definitely a little bit different with Philly," Sitton said. "That's part of the reason I've gotten a little more reps this week. They do a lot of different things on defense, so it's sort of more difficult."
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Campen said he never asked Lang or Sitton how they were feeling Sunday night. Same as any other game day.
It's an unwritten rule, something Campen draws from his playing days with the Packers. Once the helmets are strapped, pregame warmups finished, there are no excuses. If a player is healthy enough to be on the field, he's expected to get the job done.
"That stuff doesn't even enter my mind," Campen said. "Obviously, you have concern for them, but it doesn't really enter your mind. That's why I never asked them once how they're doing. As a former player, I've had injuries, too. When a coach came up and asked me, 'Hey, how you doing? How you holding up?' I didn't want to hear it. They probably don't want to hear it."
The no-excuse mentality serves a purpose.
On the offensive line, injuries are part of the game. Lang said he "tweaked" his ankle again in the third quarter Sunday — without the trainer's tape job, it could've been more serious — but kept playing. Sitton doesn't know how his toe will feel from day to day.
A toe injury forced the San Francisco 49ers to place inside linebacker Patrick Willis on injured reserve Thursday. If Sitton played anywhere but the offensive line, he said doctors told him his fate could've been similar. Regardless, Sitton knows the pain in his toe won't fade any time soon.
"I'm not confident that it's going to be something that's going to go away," Sitton said. "It's going to be something that's going to be around all year, you know. Yeah, as of right now, I was able to play on it, but it can always get worse very quickly."
No matter. There's a standard inside offensive line rooms across the NFL. Ankles wrapped, knees braced, they're on the field each Sunday ready to push their bodies further.
Campen said there aren't many better examples than Sitton and Lang.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.