It was third-and-7, and Aaron Donald came charging like a bull. Try blocking this 6-foot-1, 285-pound wrecking ball with a head of steam. Few offensive linemen can.
Donald, the St. Louis Rams defensive tackle, is one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. Borderline unstoppable. Entering last week’s game at Lambeau Field, his 3.5 sacks through the season’s first four weeks led all defensive tackles in the league.
So when the Packers offense had its first third down Sunday – with a long seven yards to go – left guard Josh Sitton was in an unenviable position. Donald took nine hard steps after the snap, a sprinter bursting out of the blocks, hell-bent on wrecking quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, Sitton planted his feet. Donald stopped dead in his tracks, like he’d just run into a wall.
“That’s a big guy,” Packers defensive end Datone Jones said of Sitton. “You can’t run through him. You can’t beat him with speed."
Here, in a one-play snapshot, Sitton showed what makes him the NFL’s best pass-blocking guard. Donald wanted to beat him inside, the quickest path to Rodgers. Sitton used his footwork to shadow Donald, like a point guard slide-stepping to defend the dribble. Simultaneously, he used his right arm to gain leverage, forcing Donald back outside, away from the quarterback.
The right-arm “punch” separates Sitton from most pass blockers, Jones said. It forced Donald to vacate the middle of the field, allowing Rodgers to pick up the first down with an 18-yard run. By the time Rodgers ran past Donald, the defensive tackle was so disoriented his back was turned to Sitton.
“He’s waiting on guys to try to bull rush him,” Jones said. “He neutralizes them every time.”
They didn’t want to talk about streaks inside the Packers’ locker room this week. Not after Rodgers’ stretch of 586 passes without throwing an interception at Lambeau Field ended with not one, but two picks against the Rams last Sunday. But Jones isn’t exaggerating.
For almost three years, Sitton has neutralized the opposing pass rusher. Every time.
Sitton, a two-time Pro Bowler, hasn’t allowed a sack since the Packers’ road game at the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 22, 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. His 37 straight games with no sacks allowed is the longest streak for any guard in the NFL since at least 2007, the first season Pro Football Focus started tracking advanced metrics.
Former San Diego Chargers guard Kris Dielman’s 35-game streak had been the longest in the past eight years. Sitton broke Dielman’s streak during the Packers’ game at San Francisco earlier this month.
“It’s really unbelievable,” center Corey Linsley said of the streak. “Nothing short of phenomenal. It really is. I’m very fortunate to play next to him.”
The 37 games since Sitton’s last sack gives him the longest streak in almost a decade, at least. Sitton said it has been even longer.
The 2013 sack happened in the second quarter, a third-and-17 at the Bengals’ 34-yard line. On the snap, defensive end Michael Johnson beat left tackle David Bakhtiari inside. Sitton, blocking defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry, pushed his man outside, where he usually would have help.
When Rodgers tried to step up in the pocket, Johnson was in his way. Johnson and Gilberry converged for the sack, dropping Rodgers for an 8-yard loss.
“He knows if he’s going to lose,” Bakhtiari said, “he’s going to give the guy the longest route possible to lose.”
The last time Sitton was solely responsible for a sack, he said, came during the Packers’ season-ending trip to Minnesota in 2012. It was second-and-8 inside the Metrodome from the Vikings’ 38-yard line. The Packers were running their two-minute drill before halftime.
Defensive tackle Everson Griffen came on a bull rush, but it was different than Donald’s move Sunday. Griffen took short, choppy steps, a dozen total. On his 13th, he planted his left foot into the turf and slipped inside Sitton, something that almost never happens.
Sitton smacked his hands together as he peeled himself off the field, clearly disgusted.
Offensive line coach James Campen couldn’t recall Sitton’s last sack, not without looking it up. When he was told Sitton remembered, Campen wasn’t surprised.
“I would not doubt that he’s right,” Campen said. “Because a lineman knows. Trust me, I know from personal experience, you know when you gave up your last sack. You don’t want them.”
It’s been 42 games since that sack in Minnesota. In December, it will be three calendar years. Sitton could be working on his third straight season without allowing a sack. He has been almost perfect through five games, allowing just one hurried pass at the 49ers earlier this month, according to Pro Football Focus.
How impressive is Sitton’s streak? Consider who flanks him at left tackle and center on the Packers’ offensive line. The last time Sitton allowed a sack, Bakhtiari and Linsley were in college.
But he isn’t about to speak of the streak. Not this week. No jinxes allowed inside the Packers’ locker room.
“I don’t know, man,” Sitton said as he walked toward the players’ shower area, off limits to reporters. “As soon as you talk about it, you’re going to (mess) it up. So I’m just not going to talk about it.”
Anatomy of pass protection
It’s hard to highlight an offensive lineman. Usually, they’re only noticed when a play goes sour. A sack here. A yellow penalty flag there. They hear their number over a stadium’s speakers, and they cringe.
Praise doesn’t come easily, either. Their play is predicated on those around them. If one blocker slips out of place, pass protection falls apart.
There’s a reason the Packers rank inside the league’s top 10 with eight sacks allowed through the first five games. No, the credit doesn’t belong to Sitton alone. But he is the elder statesman, the only lineman who has been around every season Rodgers has started at quarterback. Nobody has protected Rodgers better.
“It’s always been a thing that came natural to me,” Sitton said.
Sitton was a sound pass blocker before his current streak. Still, it’s fitting he hasn’t been solely responsible for a sack since the end of 2012.
Before the 2013 season, Sitton flipped from right guard to left. He said passing blocking “felt a little more natural” on the left side. His hand placement fits better.
Sitton, a right-hander, can use his dominant hand to “punch” pass rushers and leverage them outside.
“He’s punching guys with one arm,” Jones said. “Most offensive linemen punch guys, if they are going one arm, they’re punching guys with their outside arm instead of the inside. He’s punching guys inside arm, one arm.”
Hand placement is only one piece to pass protection. At his locker this week, right tackle Bryan Bulaga ran through the list. Balanced footwork. Shifty hips. Brute strength. Then there’s the cerebral element.
A great pass protector knows the entire field, Bulaga said. He can step outside his one-on-one battle and see all the components.
“The thing is,” Bulaga said, “he knows the weak points of protection. He knows when his help is coming, how to set guys. When a center is going to be there. When a back is going to be there. He’s very smart with his set, and he takes away lanes.
“Let’s say a (running) back is going through the B gap. He’s not going to jump out there, because why get beat away from your help? He’s just very smart knowing that.”
In the NFL, elite pass rushers pressure the quarterback from the edge. Offensive tackles, especially those protecting a quarterback’s blind side, usually are stressed most against the rush. Campen, a former Packers center, said that doesn’t make Sitton’s consistency any less impressive.
The challenges of pass blocking on the interior are different than the edge, Campen said, but equally daunting. Interior blockers are closer to the quarterback. There’s less time to recover when a mistake is made. Less time between snap and sack.
“If I get beat right now inside,” Campen explains, “then (the rusher) has a direct line. But if the guy on the outside, if he messes up his technique, I’ve got a chance to recover or run him high and wide. I can do something to steer it.”
Jones compares Sitton to Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, which may sound odd at first, but he explained. Jones said Watt, the best defensive player in the league, is able to do things his peers can’t. Watch the film, Jones said, and Watt moves differently than other defensive ends.
Sitton is the same way, Jones said. Other offensive linemen try to emulate him, Jones noticed, but they can’t. Last week was just another example. Jones saw Sitton stop Donald in his tracks, and he wasn’t surprised.
He’d seen it before.
“After a while,” Jones said, “you go up against somebody enough times, you figure him out. I still haven’t figured this guy out yet. He’s that good. After watching him play against Aaron Donald, I was like, ‘He’s the real deal.’”
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