Silverstein: After rough first half, Packers' offensive line finds its way against Bears
GREEN BAY – It was a big ask.
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy wanted quarterback Aaron Rodgers to enjoy the fruits of having Davante Adams and fellow receivers Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison on the field together with tight end Jimmy Graham.
If the Chicago Bears and their recently acquired superstar outside linebacker Khalil Mack were going to bring down Rodgers they were going to have to get through his mostly veteran offensive line.
Fine, the Bears said, we’ll call your offensive line and raise you an Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith and Roy Robertson-Harris.
In the early going of the Packers’ come-from-behind 24-23 victory Sunday night at Lambeau Field, the Bears had the winning hand.
They dominated the one-on-ones the entire first half, winning them so decidedly that they knocked Rodgers out of the game with a left knee sprain in the second quarter and forced backup quarterback DeShone Kizer into two devastating turnovers, including an interception Mack returned 27 yards for a touchdown.
“They expect us to win one-on-one matchups and we have to do that,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “No one is out there asking for help. Our job is to block defensive linemen. Regardless of the situation, that’s what we’re asked to do.”
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McCarthy couldn’t have been completely surprised that Hicks dominated right guard Justin McCray on the first couple of series. Hicks had 8½ sacks last year and has given guards and centers fits since joining the Bears in 2016.
The Bears made sure Hicks was lined up on McCray with their alignments and the 6-5, 332-pound behemoth alternated beating McCray inside and outside.
He beat him inside on the first series and drew a holding penalty. He beat him outside on the next series for a sack and forced fumble that the Packers recovered. He beat him inside on the same series and drew a holding penalty that negated a 48-yard catch and run by running back Ty Montgomery.
“He’s a good player, I just have to play better,” McCray said. “It was more things I was doing then he was doing, just getting off better with my sets. It just wasn’t rolling for me. I expect to go out and dominate and that’s not what I did the first quarter.”
In the meantime, Bulaga was having his own problems trying to block Mack, who came in on the fourth play of the game and nearly drove the veteran tackle straight back into Rodgers. That play seemed to give Mack the upper hand right away and he continued to pursue Rodgers and then backup DeShone Kizer like they had stolen the signing bonus in his $131 million contract.
With just over 9 minutes left in the half, Mack went screaming around Bulaga and forced Rodgers to step into the rush of Robertson-Harris, who had beaten McCray and center Corey Linsley up the middle. Not only did Rodgers get sacked, he injured his knee and had to leave the game.
Six minutes later, when Kizer tried to use a Bulaga block to scramble outside, Mack slithered right through, tackled the quarterback and stole the ball from him. Just 2½ minutes after that Mack sniffed out a screen, picked off Kizer and scored to give the Bears a 17-0 lead.
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Bulaga didn’t have much time to shake off any rust, his only live action since tearing his ACL on Nov. 5, a few plays in the last exhibition game.
Mack, whom the Bears traded for essentially two first-round picks and made him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, offered no mercy even though he had missed all of training camp because of a holdout with the Oakland Raiders.
“It was my first game in 10 months, 10 months today,” Bulaga said. “It was just a matter of getting settled in. A guy like that, he’s a hell of a player. I think there’s plays you want back every game and I’ll go back and look at those.”
McCray was grateful that offensive line coach James Campen had not benched him, and his teammates urged him not to get down on himself. At halftime, Campen met with the line, made some adjustments and told them Rodgers was coming back in the second half.
They knew he wasn’t going to be running around much, so they were going to have to hold their blocks longer and make sure he had a pocket from which to throw. At the same time, they had to deal with some of the twists and slants the Bears were using to puncture the Packers’ protection.
“When you see ‘12’ coming back like that, you’re going to fight your (butt) off,” Linsley said. “We made some adjustments. They were doing a lot of stuff, creating one-on-one matchups, using twists and countering back and forth what we were doing.
“We had to counter what they were doing. We did a lot better job with that in the second half.”
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With Rodgers back in the game, the Packers went to more of a rhythm passing attack, starting out with short passes across the middle and in the flat. The Bears were making it hard for Graham by lining up Mack and Leonard Floyd over him whenever he was flexed off the line of scrimmage.
They would try to interfere with the start of Graham’s route and then bring heat off the edge.
Bulaga said he went over his personal game plan for Mack and made some adjustments with hand placement and technique in the second half. He seemed to set shorter and try to use his power against the smaller Mack instead of allowing Mack to get up to full speed.
The game plan didn’t change a lot in the second half, but the play of the line did.
“We played like crap the first half, there’s no skirting around the issue,” Bulaga said. “Came in here and schematically it didn’t seem like we changed much. It was just a matter of trying to get into a rhythm. I felt we were able to do that.”
Rodgers got the ball off quickly on the first series of the third quarter as he tested his knee and tried to get the Bears on the defensive. The first drive resulted in a field goal but after that things started to click and the gains got a little bigger.
The protection got considerably better as Bulaga and McCray settled down and began creating a solid pocket for Rodgers. There were still moments when Rodgers was harried, but the longer the game wore on, the more time Rodgers seemed to have.
“They started bringing a little more pressure to the (blocking) back, bringing (linebacker Danny) Trevathan, which we adjusted to pretty good,” Rodgers said. “They were trying to get Mack on the field as many plays as possible, but we countered and we wanted to slow him down a little bit.
“We let Bryan get settled and he did a good job. Hicks is also a great pass rusher. We had some schemes there, but it was kind of just holding onto your ‘you-know-what’ and trying to make a couple plays.”
When it was over, the linemen left the field knowing they have a lot of things to fix and that they won’t have much time to do it with the Minnesota Vikings heading to town on Sunday.