Lang's guard-dog mentality reflects Packers' chemistry
It didn't take long for Corey Linsley to figure out the kind of leader T.J. Lang was.
After JC Tretter injured his knee late in the preseason, the Green Bay Packers rookie center witnessed it in the week leading up to his first NFL start against Seattle.
Admittedly nervous, Linsley had to weather the mind games Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin was playing with him from the other side of the country. Inside his own locker room, Lang and fellow guard Josh Sitton were voices of reason.
As it turned out, nobody needed to "pray" for the rookie. He survived like the veterans said he would, and Linsley has started every game since with Lang on his right shoulder. During that time, he's grown to admire Lang's calming presence and also his guard-dog mentality when the situation calls for it.
So when a collection of Dallas defenders was gang-tackling receiver Davante Adams at the end of a play in Sunday's 26-21 win over the Cowboys, Linsley didn't need a Magic 8-ball to know what was going to happen next.
Lang was going to take charge.
"That's T.J. to a 'T,' the type of guy who's always going to have your back, no matter what the situation," Linsley said. "I know it wasn't exactly the politically correct way to handle that, but you get something from that. You get a little bit of that guy's character because he's always got your back, no matter what it is."
A small scuffle ensued after Lang cleared defensive tackle Nick Hayden from the pile. When everything was sorted out, he picked up a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness and an $8,268 fine from the NFL. After the game, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said "that's the kind of penalty you can live with" because Lang was standing up for a teammate.
Rodgers has seen this evolution with Lang for the past two years. He's become increasingly vocal. That maturation has been important given the youth movement the offensive line has undergone in recent years with the departure of Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, Daryn Colledge and Scott Wells.
Leadership is a big part of what coach Mike McCarthy believes he's has built his team around since arriving in 2006. Those players don't have to be "rah-rah" guys. Sometimes soft-spoken veterans like Charles Woodson, Julius Peppers and even Rodgers can be more effective with a well-timed message.
Woodson was the master of it. Rodgers says he had a way of speaking that made the "big moments seem small." When asked Friday which players have stepped up since Woodson left, the first player Rodgers listed was Lang.
"Maybe two years ago he started being a little bit more vocal, and then last year it was kind of, it became natural for him to speak in front of the team," Rodgers said. "Whether it was before the game or before practice, or during the week in a meeting, or a walk-through. T.J. has really stepped up, him and Josh, especially, have become great leaders for us, vocal leaders, guys who are respected by the teammates."
Fullback John Kuhn says Lang was "covering the ball" on the play in question against the Cowboys, the fundamental of making sure you follow the ball carrier until the whistle blows. Tight end Andrew Quarless did it earlier this year when he pushed Eddie Lacy in for a touchdown against Chicago.
It's one of the areas the Packers emphasize, whether it's pushing your own guy for an extra yard or being around the play in case the football pops loose. One player who certainly appreciated Lang's extra effort was Adams, who was getting batted around before Lang arrived.
"We're all together and we look out for one another," Adams said. "That's just a prime example of they saw a lot of guys were on me and just being the last man playing.
"They play to the whistle. That's the way the game is supposed to be played. It's questionable, might have been a little late or whatever, but it's just him playing hard."
Lacy and James Starks have a closer look at this side of the offensive line than most of their teammates. It's something they feed off of when crashing into 300-pound defensive linemen one play after the next.
It's where two positions become one. The objective of both is to move the player in front of you. As the play unfolded against the Cowboys, Lacy felt it immediately energize the sideline with Green Bay trailing 14-10 in the third quarter.
"Anytime as a team you see your players doing that, it definitely amps you up, and it shows the other team that, no matter what, we're not going to back down," Lacy said. "We did get a penalty, which isn't good. It just shows how close we are as a team."
It's a fine line, but the Packers seem to have a pretty good grasp of it. Green Bay finished 11th in fewest penalties this season, according to NFLPenalties.com. The personal foul was only Lang's third penalty of the season and first unsportsmanlike.
It's not just the leadership, though. Lang has been an important facet of an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks of Rodgers (1.75 per game) of the quarterback's seven years as a starter. The same has held true in the run game, where Lacy fashioned his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing campaign.
McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen have stated repeatedly it's been Lang's best season since becoming a full-time starter in 2011.
"T.J. Lang, he's big for us, not only on the field but in the locker room," McCarthy said. "He's definitely one of our top leaders. He's a man's man. He's always going about it the right way. Having a heck of a year."
The Packers return to Seattle for Sunday's NFC championship game, the site where Green Bay's offense struggled in a 36-16 loss in Week 1. If the result is going to be different, the Packers will be leaning on leaders like Lang.
Whether it's a few words of wisdom or someone to share a foxhole with, the former fourth-round pick out of Eastern Michigan has become one of the most respected voices in the locker room.
As for the penalty, it eventually will be forgotten. What his teammates will remember, however, is their offensive lineman doing his job.
"I think you see those guys, they're not worried about riding that fine line," Kuhn said. "That penalty T.J. took this past week was borderline at the worst. That's something that every team does. Our line is emphatic that they're going to cover the football. They're going to take care of their ball carriers. They're going to watch over Aaron and they're going to play together because it's the closest team that normally wins this time of year."
The Packers hope that formula prevails against the Seahawks.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.