PHILADELPHIA – Throughout a Green Bay Packers season that has had more valleys than peaks, more losses than victories and more doubt than assurance, there has been only one group that has held its own the entire way.
So, who would coach Mike McCarthy rather have than his offensive line as the catalyst for an offensive renaissance and potential season-saving victory in a place where no other NFL team had won this season?
The line put a wall up around quarterback Aaron Rodgers all game long, neutralizing one of the best defenses in the NFL and opening the door for the guys who throw and catch the passes to pile up 313 yards in the air in a 27-13 upset victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night.
And they did it having to start rookie tackle Jason Spriggs at guard despite the fact he hadn’t played there at all in college and couldn’t have a body (6-6, 301 pounds) less suited for guard.
“I definitely think we take a lot of pride in our room to try to be the guys that set the tempo for the offense,” said right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who held red-hot defensive end Brandon Graham to five tackles and no sacks. “We know the focal point is the quarterback and we understand that.
“When we get the opportunity to run the ball or pass block, we try to do our best to give him time to do his job and find guys and win ballgames.”
Coming into this game, the Eagles had outscored their opponents 100-38 in four home games. They had allowed 15 or fewer points against Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Atlanta and in so doing had allowed just three touchdowns, the fewest of any NFL team on its home turf.
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The Eagles came into the game with 26 sacks and came out of it with the very same number. They were giving up 228.9 yards passing per game and gave up 313 against the Packers. They ranked third in the NFL in third-down defense (35.2 percent) and allowed the Packers to convert 10 of 14 (71 percent).
None of it would have been possible without Bulaga handling Graham, left tackle David Bakhtiari handling Connor Barwin (one solo tackle) and Spriggs playing surprisingly well against beastly Fletcher Cox (one assisted tackle). It was as though they met and said they would be the ones to pull this team out of its four-game losing streak.
“We just keep status quo,” Bakhtiari said. “I mean, we’ve lost two starters, with JC (Tretter) down and T. J. (Lang) down, we know we have to be status quo and consistent and give our playmakers opportunities to make plays.
“If we can extend it and help them out, and help 12 out whenever we can, we can run the ball, we just want to make sure we’re always there for them.”
It all started on the very first possession of the game.
The Packers started at their own 25 after a touchback and proceeded to march 75 yards in 10 plays for their first opening-game touchdown since the Atlanta loss. Rodgers, who completed 30 of 39 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns, stood in the pocket and hit receiver after receiver.
He scrambled twice for 25 yards, but he wasn’t feeling that much heat and took advantage of the Eagles’ corners playing with their backs to the ball in man coverage. Rodgers finished the drive off with a slant pass to receiver Davante Adams for a 12-yard touchdown.
“If you look at it, they were very basic plays and we came out and ran the ball,” McCarthy said. “We were in a sub-personnel group there against their base defense and they had an overloaded box and had better edges than we did.
“But it’s important to give your O-linemen playing against those D-linemen a chance to set their pads and get after ‘em and get going, too. We still played and started the game with what we felt would be the best to build off of. It really wasn’t the plays or anything like that.”
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The line kept playing better as the game wore on. Rodgers was only harassed a couple of times and had plenty of time to complete a 20-yard touchdown pass to Adams in the first quarter and a 50-yarder down the right sideline to set up a field goal in the third quarter.
On the second one, Rodgers had all day to look off a safety and wait for Adams to get a step on the corner, lofting a perfect pass into his hands.
And they did it with the Eagles using Cox in front of Spriggs most of the day. The rookie made his first career start in place of Lang and played remarkably well.
“Spriggs did a good job,” left guard Lane Taylor said. “He was just taking care of business. He probably had to settle in a little bit. Guard is a new things for him. I think he did a great job.”
Perhaps the crowning moment came early in the fourth quarter after Rodgers completed a 23-yard pass to Adams across the middle to the 3-yard line. After an Eagles penalty moved it up to the 1, McCarthy went to a spread formation and called for Rodgers to throw a fade into the corner of the end zone.
It went incomplete.
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Rather than go for another pass, McCarthy brought in fullback Aaron Ripkowski and just about everybody in the stadium knew where the ball was going. Ripkowski took the handoff, followed the blocks of Taylor and center Corey Linsley and then dove easily in the end zone for a touchdown.
It was only the offense’s fourth rushing touchdown of the season.
Asked if it was a statement play, Taylor said, “It was just nice to get a rushing touchdown. That was the statement.”
Maybe so, but it was all part of setting the tone in this game.