Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang talks about getting beaten up by the Carolina Panthers. (Nov. 9, 2015)
Corey Linsley dressed slowly, spoke softly. Sitting at his locker, tucked in a corner inside Bank of America Stadium’s visiting dressing room, he ran the fourth-and-goal play through his mind.
Linsley snapped the football, then lost his balance. He tried to recover, tried to stay engaged, but Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short is hard enough to block under ideal circumstances. These weren’t. Short bull rushed Linsley, pushed him back on his heels before escaping into Aaron Rodgers’ face.
“I don’t know what set me off balance,” Linsley said as he packed his suitcase. “I have to go look at the film, but that’s what gave up my pressure.”
Short pressured Rodgers as his pass wobbled short. Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis fell to the ground with an interception, effectively sealing the Green Bay Packers’ 37-29 loss at Bank of America Stadium.
It’s easy to blame the offensive linemen when a play breaks down. Even their faintest flaws are obvious. A missed assignment. A penalty. A sack. There’s no hiding those mistakes.
Still, applying blame is tricky. Maybe Rodgers finds receiver Randall Cobb wide open in the end zone if Short isn’t in his face. Maybe Rodgers should’ve found Cobb anyway.
There were plenty of “what ifs?” Sunday.
Linsley wasn’t the only one who made a critical error. Far from it. But the second-year center from Ohio State is among the most publicly accountable players in the Packers’ locker room. After the game, Linsley wouldn’t dodge the blame.
“I’m not speaking for anybody else,” Linsley said. “I need to pick up my play. I think everybody else has been playing real well, and I’ve been playing average. It is what it is.
“I had a fast start (this season) and didn’t sustain it. Just have to bounce back.”
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but the Packers’ pass protection has mirrored Linsley’s season. The offensive line had a fast start, allowing three sacks through the first three games. When right tackle Bryan Bulaga returned from a knee injury last month, most expected the offensive line to thrive.
Instead, the Packers have struggled protecting Rodgers. Never were their issues more severe than Sunday. The Panthers had five sacks, 14 quarterback hits. Rodgers, the franchise quarterback, was often running out of time.
But, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, blame doesn’t solely belong to the offensive line. The Packers weren’t exactly posing much of a running threat, trailing multiple touchdowns in the second half. Without an element of surprise, McCarthy said the Panthers’ pass rushers were able to get too comfortable.
"Score of the game,” McCarthy said. “I thought the biggest part of the duress was in the second half. Favorable down and distance and our production on third down kind of stands out to me right now. I'll see what the video says."
Whatever the issue, the Packers’ pass protection is trending in the wrong direction. They’ve allowed 11 sacks and 26 quarterback hits in the past three games. It’s no coincidence they’ve lost twice in that stretch.
Pass protection is more complex than it looks. Breakdowns are easy to spot, but the origin is often hard to identify. In the locker room, right guard T.J. Lang sensed a lack of communication was the Packers’ biggest issue Sunday, especially between the offensive line and running backs.
“It’s something we take a lot of pride in,” Lang said. “To see (Rodgers) get hit, we put that on us. It’s not just the O-line. There’s a lot of things that go into protection. Everybody’s just got to get better, whether it’s the protection from us up front, the running backs picking up blitzes, getting the timing down with the routes.
“Everybody plays a part in that, but when you look at the hits and sacks we give up as a line, I don’t think we should be judged as individuals. That’s really on the whole unit. Everybody has to take responsibility.”
Lang spoke for eight minutes at his locker, answering all questions. Then the cameras left, and he took one more.
With his teammates on the bus, Lang tried to explain the pass-protection issues. Is it the quarterback’s fault? The running backs? Or is it the offensive line?
Lang agreed the Packers need to get better, and fast.
“I’m not going to say we’re struggling,” Lang said. “I think we’re just putting ourselves in tough positions right now. Just gotta make sure we play better as a unit. It’s not on any individuals. It’s just everybody kind of seems to take their turn slipping up here and there.
“We’ve just got to find a better way to play as a unit.”