GREEN BAY - Besides missing his mammoth size, impeccable pass protection and durability, the Green Bay Packers are starting the season without Josh Sitton’s wealth of knowledge.
It may not seem like a big deal, but over the past three seasons the eight-year veteran has been the senior member of the offensive line and the one who picked up on the nuances of opposing defenses.
His sudden departure, the result of the team’s surprising decision to release him in the cutdown to 53 Saturday, creates a vacuum that replacement Lane Taylor, who has just two career starts, can’t fill. Even if Taylor can step in and fortify the left guard position physically, the offensive line is still going to miss its tribal elder.
"He was just a guy who always wanted to put us in the best position to go out and be successful,” guard T.J. Lang said of Sitton. “Very unselfish guy. He had so much experience, he’s never not seen anything. He’s seen it all. Nobody is going to come out and trick him.
“He always seems like he has answers for everything. He played a lot of football.”
Preparation for the season opener in Jacksonville began Monday and the reality that Sitton was no longer a part of the offensive line was still sinking in with his former teammates. The part about him signing with the rival Chicago Bears was so far down the list of subjects to address that hardly anyone was mentioning it in the locker room Monday.
Coach Mike McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen have the unenviable task of trying to redirect the group’s focus to Jacksonville despite lingering questions as to why the team’s best lineman the last five or six years was shipped out.
General manager Ted Thompson made the move and left the coaches to explain how you go about winning a Super Bowl without one of your most talented players. Thompson has neither made himself available to reporters nor spoken to his players about why the move was made at sunrise of Week 1.
“I can sit here and speculate for hours, but the fact is I don’t know any reasons behind it,” Lang said. “And I don’t think we probably ever will. I think that makes it a little tougher to move on. But we just have to find a way.
“It sucks. The timing doesn’t help much, either. But we’re playing Jacksonville and that’s where our focus has to be.”
McCarthy decided not to shuffle players around on the line to account for Sitton’s absence, but rather insert Taylor, a fourth-year pro with two career starts and 299 snaps under his belt. The 6-3, 324-pound Taylor backed up Sitton at left guard during training camp and played extensively in the exhibition games.
McCarthy said Taylor's play in the running game has stood out and he believes he will provide the Packers with a physical presence inside. However, the big question will be whether he can hold up in pass protection the way Sitton, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, has over the years.
Over his eight seasons, seven as a starter, Sitton has been almost impenetrable, especially the last three years when he has allowed just 2 1/2 sacks while playing left guard. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been able to drop back without worry that someone will have a free run at him from where Sitton was lined up and now he’ll have to develop that same kind of trust with someone new.
"Lane Taylor, he’s ready," McCarthy said. "He’s prepared for this, he’s been here, he’s played in real games, I think it’s two starts or whatever it is. But hey, we have all the confidence in the world in Lane and really our offensive line group.
"You look at how Donnie Barclay has played, I think JC Tretter has had probably one of the best training camps, clearly his best training camp since he’s been here. You’ve got young guys coming on and we’ll be ready to go."
Taylor had three penalties in the exhibition finale against Kansas City and also appeared to give up several pressures. McCarthy defended Taylor, however, and said his performance was not as spotty as it looked.
"I think like all things you’ve got to look at the video,” McCarthy said. “I understand it’s the preseason, and it’s preseason for the officials, too. I was very confident in how he played in that game. I thought he was physical and did a lot of good things. And frankly, he did some things that he needs to improve on."
The Packers’ offensive line will look different than a year ago with Tretter at center and Taylor at left guard. The combination of Sitton, Lang and Corey Linsley, who will start the season on PUP with a hamstring injury, gave the line a strong core and generally kept Rodgers protected in the middle.
Tretter is a better athlete than Linsley but not as strong and will rely more on quickness and agility than brute strength both as a run and pass blocker. Taylor is a mauler much like Sitton, but he’s not as quick, can’t anchor as well and isn’t as consistent in keeping his pads down for good balance.
There will be a period of adjustment for everyone, Taylor especially.
“I’m just going to prepare and go out there and not think about everything else or what other people think,” Taylor said. "I’m going to prepare my best to go out there and play at the best of my ability. I’ve been around here for four years now so we’ve all worked with each other a lot, so there’s not much that needs to be said.”
Still, Tretter and left tackle David Bakhtiari worked with Sitton all camp long and developed chemistry in handling stunts and twists. Taylor has been working on the second unit with left tackle Jason Spriggs and center Don Barclay and you can bet Jacksonville is going to test his cohesiveness with the starters on Sunday.
The Jaguars have a $90 million free-agent defensive tackle in former Denver Bronco Malik Jackson prepared to make life difficult for Taylor. Somehow the line is going to have to come to grips with Thompson’s decision to move forward without Sitton and then go out and play like he’s still there.
“It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s an adjustment that, we’re professionals, we’re going to have to work on the fly,” Bakhtiari said. “Same thing as a guy getting injured. You’ve got to have that chemistry. It’s the same thing. I mean, I’ve worked with other guards, especially in practice. So it’s just now building that game chemistry.”