GREEN BAY – The most grueling play in the Green Bay Packers' playbook isn’t a play at all. It is unscripted, organic. It can reap big chunks of yardage, or nothing at all.
Earlier this season, the Packers’ vaunted extended play – the staple of their success through eight straight playoff trips – was disjointed. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers would hold the football, hold the football, hold the football, and finally throw it away.
The Packers allowed five sacks in a Week 2 loss at Minnesota. The average time between snap and sack was more than three seconds, an eternity in the NFL. Something had to change.
“It was getting a little frustrating,” right guard T.J. Lang said, “because you’d block for seven, eight seconds, and he’d scramble around and throw the ball out of bounds, and it’s like we just wasted all that time and energy for nothing.
“We stick with it. We know that that’s the way Aaron likes to play. It’s not going to happen 20 to 30 times a game. It might happen twice. It might happen 10 times. You don’t know.”
There is a fine balance with the extended play. Too much, and it can cripple an offense. The scheme loses structure. The timing and rhythm disappear.
But for all its difficulty – nothing is more grueling than blocking seven, eight seconds – each Packers offensive lineman understands the extended play’s importance. This is what separates Rodgers from every other quarterback in the league.
Take the final offensive snap Sunday in Dallas. Rodgers rolled left, holding the football for six seconds before finding tight end Jared Cook down the left sideline. It’s the kind of play Rodgers has made routinely down the stretch.
He held the football almost nine seconds before throwing a touchdown to Geronimo Allison in Detroit. Another eight seconds before throwing a touchdown to Davante Adams against the New York Giants. Left tackle David Bakhtiari said an increase of structured plays have helped the Packers' extended play once again become the most lethal seven, eight seconds in football.
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“I think it’s a balance,” Bakhtiari said. “The ability to have normal plays where you’re not extending, and then not forcing an extended play. And then also just the cohesiveness of all 11 guys, understanding us being able to block for that long, wide receivers able to do second and third, fourth, whatever reaction they’re doing down the field.
“Then a quarterback understanding how to read rush patterns, find the soft spot, extended area, find the open guy and make an accurate throw.”
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Rodgers’ offensive line, an important element to their extended play, has been a stabilizing effect on the quarterback. It’s been a different season than 2015, when injuries ravaged the unit. The continuity up front has been much more like the last time the Packers made a NFC title-game appearance in 2014, helping them once again become among the league’s top pass-protection units.
Credit could spread throughout the Packers' offensive line. Lang is a Pro Bowler. Center Corey Linsley didn’t miss a beat filling in for injured JC Tretter after returning from the physically unable to perform list. Despite initial concerns over how he’d replace All-Pro guard Josh Sitton, Lane Taylor has been solid all 16 games.
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But for the first time in Rodgers’ eight seasons as a starter, his left and right tackle started all 16 games in the regular season.
“I think that’s most important.” Rodgers said. “When you have your tackles healthy the entire season, that’s been a huge part of our success. If you look at the success of most offenses, I think a pretty common thread – unless you’re extremely deep at multiple positions – is having the core of your offensive line together for multiple starts in a row, if not all 16. We’ve been fortunate enough to have those guys going for a long time.
“Having those two guys being healthy, and then also playing extremely well, that’s been a big part of our success.”
Bakhtiari was selected a second-team All-Pro. The Packers believe Bryan Bulaga is the NFL’s best right tackle, and pay him accordingly. Together, they’ve been a part of a unit that allowed 35 sacks in the regular season, despite regular extended plays.
The Packers allowed 47 sacks last season, fifth most in the league.
A clean pocket was especially critical when injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks stripped the Packers of a reliable run game midway through the season. Out of necessity, the Packers had to operate with a run-pass balance out of whack for several weeks. It allowed edge rushers and defensive linemen to cheat the pass rush, with no fear of the run.
The pillars of the Packers' pass-protect unit, Bakhtiari and Bulaga didn’t flinch.
“They usually pay those guys that the tackles have to go against a lot of money,” Bakhtiari said. “So obviously they’re important. They get paid to disrupt the game. Any time you have tackles such as Bryan and I that are able to neutralize pass rushers, that’s huge.
“Especially for your quarterback, the trust and the comfortability he can have back there to make a play and feel comfortable in that extra second he’s holding the ball to do the job.”
Rodgers doesn’t hesitate to extend a play now, because he can. There is trust between the Packers' quarterback and offensive line.
There’s also a willingness to block – “to infinity,” Lang said – if big plays are the result. It’s grueling, but Lang said their reward justifies extra work.
“Some of the biggest plays he makes,” Lang said, “are when guys are rushing, guys are getting pressure. He breaks the pocket and makes some big plays outside of the pocket. Blocking for him, we realize we pick up the pressure, we pick up a lot of the stunts that we’re seeing, the more time he gets, the bigger play he’s going to make.
“His feel for the rush is second to none. He feels it coming. Even when he doesn’t see it, he knows he’s got a guy coming free off the left. He’s going to make a move to miss and get outside and make a big play.”