When Bryan Bulaga exited the practice field last month with a knee injury that would require surgery, it could’ve been a significant problem for the Green Bay Packers’ offense.
Bulaga’s importance to the Packers’ offensive line is undeniable. His value was seen when general manager Ted Thompson signed the former first-round pick to a five-year, $33.75 million contract. With Bulaga out, backup Don Barclay was thrust into a starting role fresh off an ACL injury that cost him all of last season.
There was never a good time for the Packers to lose Bulaga for multiple weeks, but his absence came at one of the worst possible points in their schedule. In the past two games, the Packers faced the best defense in football last season (Seattle Seahawks) and most explosive pass-rush tandem (Justin Houston and Tamba Hali of the Kansas City Chiefs).
The offensive line not only survived the past two weeks, but they did well enough for the Packers to average 33 points in two victories. Their success caught quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ attention.
“I can tell you that the protection that we’ve had here has been the best in my eight years as a starter,” Rodgers said. “Those guys up front are blocking really well. I think Don has played a couple good games. He’s up against one of the top pass rushers in the game (Houston) and did a good job on him, with the (face mask) penalty but limited the amount of hits and pressures on me. The guys up front in the core have been excellent.”
The Packers have allowed three sacks in three games, tied for fifth fewest in the NFL.
Before the season, Packers coach Mike McCarthy predicted his offensive line had a chance to be the best it has been during his tenure, even surpassing last season’s success. They’re on pace for 14 fewer sacks than last fall, which was their fewest allowed with Rodgers as the starting quarterback.
“I think our offensive line has played excellent,” McCarthy said.
It’s only a start, McCarthy noted. It doesn’t get much easier the next two weeks. While the San Francisco 49ers have started their season 1-2, their pass rush remains formidable. Next week, the Packers will host the St. Louis Rams. Possessing one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts, the Rams have 13 sacks through three weeks, which ranks second in the league.
Several components work in unison to protect the quarterback. David Bakhtiari, the Packers’ left tackle, said edge blockers push pass rushers up field. Interior linemen prevent leaks from the middle, allowing the quarterback to step up in the pocket.
A quarterback’s mobility, quick release and mental aptitude are among the most important elements to evading the pass rush. From snap to throw, Rodgers has held the football an average of 2.87 seconds, the fifth-most in the NFL this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“If we can give him a half second, quarter second more,” Bakhtiari said, his voice trailing off. “That is huge. To give that dangerous of a man that much more time, that would be pretty much insignificant to any other individual. For him? You want to talk about dangerous.”
Interior blocking along the offensive line has been especially solid this season. Josh Sitton, perhaps the NFL’s best pass-blocking guard, has gone 33 straight games without allowing a sack, according to Pro Football Focus. Sitton’s streak dates to a loss at the Cincinnati Bengals during Week 3 of the 2013 season.
Right guard T.J. Lang has allowed one sack in the past 18 games, none this season. Center Corey Linsley also has allowed no sacks in the first three games.
While Bakhtiari and Barclay are the only Packers offensive linemen who have allowed sacks, Linsley said their play has been key to protecting Rodgers.
“Our tackles have played nothing less than phenomenal,” Linsley said. “That guy (Houston) had (22) sacks last year, and Don didn’t give him one. That was absolutely phenomenal. Our guards are our guards, and they do what they do. Everybody knows about them. I’m just in the middle trying to solidify and doing my job, trying to do it to the best of my ability, too.
“Really, I would put the emphasis on our tackles with the edge rush that we’ve had in the past three games. That’s a phenomenal job by them.”
Offensive line coach James Campen said his unit has picked up where it left off last season. The Packers allowed 30 sacks in 2014, tied for ninth in the NFL. Campen said the offensive line played especially well late last season.
They had the benefit of continuity last year. The same five linemen started each of the Packers’ final 16 games, counting playoffs. They don’t have that advantage now, of course. Campen said he’s pleased with how the offensive line has weathered the past two weeks.
“I would say we’ve been more consistent,” Campen said. “I think probably the reason — one of the reasons why — is that we were able to fix things within a game quickly. Individuals were able to fix their technique, and not have to come to the sideline to do it. Players can fix players and say, ‘Hey, look.’ They know what they did. They’re getting more mature, older. I think that’s part of it, and being smarter.”
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