Injuries tested Packers' offensive line
This is Part 5 of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the offensive line.
There was no way the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line was going to sidestep the injury bug like it did in 2014.
Sure, there were the usual torn ligaments in toes and ankles, and elbow and knee sprains, but the starting five the Packers began the 2014 season with ended up starting 17 of 18 games together. Almost unheard of in today’s NFL, it translated to the best offensive line Green Bay has featured in a decade.
Predictably, lightning did not strike twice.
While no one was lost for the season, all five of the Packers’ starting offensive linemen had extended stays on the team’s injury report in 2015. Tackles Bryan Bulaga (ankle, knee) and David Bakhtiari (ankle), center Corey Linsley (ankle) and right guard T.J. Lang (shoulder) missed 11 games combined.
It led to the Packers’ starting five playing together in only eight of the team’s 18 games. After playing 4,924 of a possible 5,250 offensive snaps (93.8 percent) last season, the Packers’ preferred offensive line dipped to 4,797 of 5,720 snaps (83.9 percent) in 2015.
The Packers were better equipped to handle Linsley’s absence than they were the tackles. Tretter, a former fourth-round pick, was slated to be the starting center in 2014 before a knee injury he sustained in the preseason landed him on temporary injured reserve for the first eight games of the regular season.
The injuries to Bakhtiari and Bulaga were the most damaging for the offense. With the two starting tackles hobbled by ankle injuries in December, Don Barclay, Tretter, Josh Walker and even Sitton took turns filling in with mostly mixed results.
The Packers have skated on thin ice at the left tackle position since Bakhtiari replaced an injured Bulaga in 2013. However, Bakhtiari’s durability made it a moot point: He made 49 consecutive starts before tearing five ligaments in his ankle Dec. 20 in Oakland. Tretter proved to be the best option when called upon in the playoffs against Washington, but center remains his natural position.
Mike McCarthy acknowledged after the season the coaching staff didn’t do enough to help those who were attempting to replace Bakhtiari. In need of as many receiving options as possible, it often meant leaving Aaron Rodgers’ blindside in the hands of a backup operating one-on-one against a rusher.
“The game plans, the aggressiveness and so forth — if I was going to be critical of one of the things on offense that we didn’t do a good enough job of, we didn’t handle the injuries,” McCarthy said. “The left tackle, you have to help people at times in each and every season. It’s part of your game planning, it’s part of your strategic makeup when you get into game planning and when we had uphill matchups, we didn’t do a good job helping that individual.”
Last year, the Packers didn’t select an offensive lineman for the first time in general manager Ted Thompson’s 11 draft classes. Expect that to change this spring with Bakhtiari, Tretter, Sitton and Lang all unrestricted free agents after the 2016 season.
A leader on and off the field, Lang is a testament to the adage that offensive linemen don’t peak until they’re 28. Difficult to move off the spot, Lang earns his paycheck in pass protection. Demonstrates good awareness on blitzes and isn’t easily fooled by stunts or twists regardless of whom he was lining up next to. His improved pad level was evident early in training camp and it benefited him. Although he’s not a natural road-grader, Lang’s athleticism makes him a versatile component and contributor in the run game. The return of the screen game also allowed Lang to showcase his athleticism. He popped up on the injury report due to a litany of ailments (knee, neck, calf and shoulder), but still played 90 percent of the offensive snaps and missed only one game. You could tell the shoulder bothered Lang late in the season, but his play didn’t diminish and he always returned to the huddle. Told ESPN.com that he likely will require shoulder surgery in the offseason. Penalized five times, including one unnecessary roughness penalty in Week 2 against Seattle for stepping up to linebacker K.J. Wright after Wright drove Packers tight end Richard Rodgers down to the ground by his facemask. A key communicator, guard dog and Pro Bowl alternate who probably deserved the trip to Hawaii.
As strong an offensive guard as you’ll find in the NFL, who’s finally getting the recognition many inside the organization feel was long overdue with his third Pro Bowl selection in four years. He was voted in on initial balloting for the second consecutive year, triggering a $250,000 escalator in his contract that raises his base salary to $6.15 million in 2016. The only member of the Packers’ offensive line to start all 18 games this season. He played 1,284 of a possible 1,292 offensive snaps (99.4 percent) despite nagging back pain that limited his practice availability during the final 10 weeks of the season. As a blueprint for proper pad level, Sitton is the closest thing the Packers have to a road-grader. Yet, he remains remarkably agile and flexible for a 6-foot-3, 318-pound guard who will celebrate his 30th birthday in June. A bit more scattershot than Lang at getting on linebackers or defensive backs downfield on screens. Dominant the past two seasons, Sitton was rendered more beatable down the stretch by the back problem. His 37-game streak without a sack ended when San Diego’s Corey Liuget beat him outside in an Oct. 18 game against the Chargers. Faced perhaps the biggest challenge of his career in the season finale against Minnesota when the coaching staff started him at left tackle against Vikings Pro Bowl end Everson Griffen. Sitton struggled in his first start there since high school. His penalties jumped from three in 2014 to a career-high 10 this season. His six holding penalties were as many as he had the past two seasons combined.
The former fourth-round pick has put on weight over the past two seasons in an effort to stand up better to bull rushes. It probably has caused him to lose some quickness, but he has made up for it with good footwork and hand placement. He isn’t a pulverizing run-blocker, but that isn’t why the Packers drafted him. In pass protection, he has cut down on his sacks allowed in each of his three NFL seasons. The Packers missed Bakhtiari dearly during the three games he sat out after tearing five ligaments in his ankle Dec. 20 against Oakland. He was playing arguably his best game of the season before suffering the injury in the fourth quarter. Despite some initial uncertainty, Bakhtiari didn’t give up any hits on Rodgers during his 73 snaps in the playoff game against Arizona. Afterward, Bakhtiari said he didn't believe the injury would require surgery. His presence weighed heavily in the Packers cutting down their sacks from nine in Week 16 against the Cardinals to only one. Showed a lot of toughness earlier in the season playing through a knee injury. Has to do something about the penalties, though Rodgers’ tendency to bolt from the pocket doesn’t make his job any easier. His 11 penalties (seven holding, four false starts) led Green Bay and tied for second-most among all NFL tackles, according to NFLPenalties.com.
A godsend his rookie season after Tretter’s knee injury, Linsley’s game was slightly off in his second year as the team’s starting center. He gave up more inside pressure and was pushed back more often than when he stepped in as a rookie. Linsley sprained his ankle against Minnesota on Nov. 22 and returned too early, resulting in him aggravating it two weeks later in Detroit. There was some question whether the Packers would give him the starting job back, but they did with two weeks left in the regular season. After a so-so showing in Arizona, Linsley gradually improved his play in the team's final three games. His strength is his calling card and the de facto reason for him keeping the starting job over Tretter. He’s not as long as Tretter, but his power makes him a more imposing blocker when he steps into the second level. His ability to work with Lang and Sitton on inside runs and then recognize and jump to the closing linebacker is what has made him a good fit on the line. It’s what made Scott Wells so formidable in Green Bay despite not possessing world-class genetics. Linsley’s four holding penalties were his only blemishes. Played 798 offensive snaps (69.8 percent) in the regular season. Always willing to listen and learn, there’s room to grow in his pass-blocking and blitz recognition going into Year 3.
With tackles flying off the free-agent market, the Packers were forced to make Bulaga one of the NFL’s highest-paid right tackles when they gave him a five-year, $33.75 million contract March 11 that included an $8 million signing bonus. A hip injury and assortment of knee ailments have forced Bulaga to miss 32 regular-season games over the past five seasons. He spent 15 of 18 weeks on the Packers’ injury report with knee and ankle injuries. Underwent surgery for a torn meniscus he sustained in practice Sept. 17, but missed only three games. His return helped settle things down on the offensive line, but he wasn’t as stout as in his career year in 2014. Strong enough to hold up to bull rushes, Bulaga played the final month of the regular season with a sprained ankle that sidelined him against Detroit and sometimes left him vulnerable to speed off the edges. Ability to recognize and reach block is his best attribute in the run game, but quickness can be an issue. Put together two of the finer performances you’ll see from a right tackle against all-pro Khalil Mack of Oakland and Ryan Kerrigan of Washington. He played 881 of 1,144 regular-season snaps (77.0 percent). Penalized eight times, including four holding calls. Carries a $950,000 base salary for 2016, but set to earn a $2.25 million roster bonus in March. His price tag goes up substantially when Bakhtiari, Lang and Sitton come off the books in 2017.
Finally got a chance to see the field (a career-high 372 offensive snaps) after sitting a majority of his first two NFL seasons due to injury and lack of opportunity. Tretter, listed at 307 pounds, is the smallest offensive lineman on the roster, but possibly the most athletic. His best position remains at center, but he looked a lot more capable and confident when needed at tackle after struggling on the right side last December in Buffalo. After filling in at right tackle in Week 16 against Arizona, Tretter ended the game of musical left tackles that the Packers were playing in the wake of Bakhtiari’s ankle injury. He gave up a sack for a safety to Washington outside linebacker Preston Smith before settling in nicely in the 35-18 win playoff. However, his biggest contribution came in spot starts at center after Linsley sprained his ankle against Minnesota on Nov. 22. Had one low snap against Chicago in Week 12, resulting in a 14-yard loss that pushed Green Bay out of field-goal range. As weeks passed, Tretter was right at home commanding the middle of the line. A smart player with an Ivy League degree, Tretter wasn’t fazed by exotic blitz packages and proved more than capable slipping into the second level on run blocks. His steady presence afforded the Packers an extra week to rest Linsley against Oakland rather than risk a second aggravation. Tretter isn’t as powerful as Linsley and can be pushed backed at times, but no reason to think he won’t get a chance to start once his rookie contract expires after the 2016 season.
Taylor remains the only undrafted rookie to receive more than a $5,000 signing bonus from the Packers in the past four seasons. He was inactive for all but four regular-season games but made his first two career starts at guard, which made up most of his 153 offensive snaps. Trimmed down in the offseason and it benefited him when he started at right guard in place of Lang against Detroit and then at left guard in the season finale versus Minnesota. After two years of development, the 6-foot-3, 324-pound guard proved he’s capable of playing at the NFL level this year. Not as powerful or athletic as Sitton and Lang, Taylor has the temperament the Packers like in their guards. He battles in the trenches and improved his run-blocking after a rough showing in 2014 in New Orleans. With Lang and Sitton entering their eighth and ninth NFL seasons, respectively, look for Green Bay to tender Taylor a contract as a restricted free agent to take one last look at him before he hits unrestricted free agency.
Worked hard to make it back for the start of the offseason program after missing the entire 2014 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament that he suffered a week into training camp. He was a serviceable replacement of Bulaga at right tackle in 2012 and 2013 because of a workmanlike approach and tenacity as a run-blocker. It’s what led to the Packers giving him a $1.542 million restricted tender despite the knee injury. Never seemed to get comfortable, with his struggles in the preseason carrying over to five spot starts and 421 offensive snaps in the regular season. His limitations in pass protection seemed more pronounced in the wake of the knee injury, leaving him susceptible to bull rushes and speed off the edge. Gave up some pressure at right tackle, but was able to wash rushers through early this season. Ran into problems in Week 4 against San Francisco when 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini started rushing to contain, which led to Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch sacks. The decision to start Barclay at left tackle against Arizona in Week 16 was bizarre, as he’d struggled there during the preseason when Bakhtiari missed three weeks with a knee injury. He allowed four sacks against the Cardinals before being replaced the next week by Sitton. Often worked outside without help of a fullback or tight end. Made the final block in Detroit on Rodgers’ 61-yard Hail Mary. Penalized four times (one accepted). He’ll be an unrestricted free agent and may be better suited for guard going forward.
A massive individual at 6-foot-5, 328 pounds. Walker took advice from the coaching staff to heart in honing his footwork at tackle after spending most of 2014 on the practice squad. Returned from the offseason about 10 pounds lighter. While he was behind Taylor on the depth chart at guard, Walker often was the extra lineman active on game day because of his ability to play guard and tackle. A more natural guard, he held his own in place of Lang in Week 5 against St. Louis despite having to contend with Aaron Donald. The Packers subbed him out in a two-minute series in favor of Barclay because of experience. He didn’t hold up as well when asked to play right tackle against Arizona and was eventually replaced by Tretter. He’ll turn 25 in June.