It's all on the line in battle for NFC North
There's a compelling argument that offensive lines generally don't win games in the NFL.
Think about it. How many week-in, week-out dominant offensive lines have there been in relatively recent NFL history?
Maybe the Packers in the 1960s. Maybe Washington's Hogs in the '80s. And maybe the Dallas Cowboys in the early '90s with Pro Bowlers Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Mark Stepnoski, Nate Newton and later Larry Allen.
But generally, there's really not that great a difference in offensive line play around the league. Some teams are better than others, no doubt, and occasionally a team's line can be a real problem. The 2002 Packers, for instance, looked like a possible Super Bowl contender at 12-4. But by season's end their odds were long, in part because they'd lost starting tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher to season-ending injuries. Contending with elite outside rushers was too much of a problem.
But it's not a position group at which one great player makes a huge difference, like it does at quarterback, defensive line, linebacker, receiver and running back. Joe Thomas, for instance, has been probably the game's best left tackle for several years, but what effect has that had on the Cleveland Browns' offense?
Which gets us to the Green Bay Packers' matchup Sunday against the Detroit Lions. It's a winner-take-all battle for the NFC North Division title and guarantee of at least the No. 2 seed in the NFC, which means a first-round bye and hosting a divisional-round game in the playoffs.
The Packers' 2014 offensive line is its best since the early 2000s, when Clifton, Tauscher, Mike Wahle, Marco Rivera and Mike Flanagan formed one of the NFL's best front fives. That group played together, more or less, for four seasons (2001-04). It also never advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs.
One NFL scout this week rated the Packers' current line — from left tackle to right, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey Linsley, T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga — as one of probably the top four in the league. The others were Dallas, San Francisco and Seattle.
And Sunday, we'll see just what that means.
That's because the Lions have exactly the kind of team that has given the Packers the most trouble in recent years. It's not just that the Lions' defense is highly ranked — it's No. 2 in the NFL in yards and points allowed. It's that they have an elite defensive line, even without injured standout tackle Nick Fairley. They usually can pressure the quarterback without blitzing and stop the run with only six in the box.
"It's a huge test for us," Sitton said late this week. "It's a challenge we look forward to. It's the strength of their defense, and I think it's the strength of their team. If we can do our jobs this weekend then (the team) will probably be successful."
There aren't many of them, but defenses that can control play around the line of scrimmage with only their linemen have a huge edge because they can devote more resources to pass coverage and taking away the deep throw. The ones that also don't have any glaring weak spots in the secondary have the best chance of beating a Packers team that since 2009 has ranked among the NFL's top offenses when Aaron Rodgers has been healthy at quarterback.
That, in essence, describes the San Francisco 49ers, who beat the Packers four straight times in 2012 and '13, along with Seattle in '12 and this season; the Kansas City Chiefs in '11; the New York Giants in the '11 playoffs and '12 regular season; the Cincinnati Bengals early last year; and the Lions and Buffalo Bills this season.
That's 12 of Rodgers' last 15 defeats.
It also describes, among others, the Miami Dolphins of this season, a team Rodgers beat with a late fourth-quarter comeback.
Contrast that to the New England Patriots, who were one of the two best teams on the Packers' schedule this season. The Patriots are the AFC's top-seeded team for the playoffs and rank in the top 10 in scoring defense (No. 8), but they aren't particularly strong on the defensive line and have a glaring weakness at No. 3 cornerback. The Packers outplayed and beat them, 26-21.
Detroit, on the other hand, definitely has the defensive line play this season. Tackle Ndamukong Suh (8½ sacks, three passes knocked down) is one of the most dominant defensive players in the league; Ziggy Ansah, the No. 5 pick overall pick in 2013, is an ascending defensive end with 7½ sacks; and their depth is as good as any in the league with rotational players Jason Jones (four sacks) and George Johnson (six sacks) at end, and C.J. Mosley (2½ sacks) and Andre Fluellen (4½ sacks combined) at tackle. They're a little like Seattle last year in their ability to rotate in solid players.
But what sets this year's Lions apart from the past few seasons is they're better on the back end. For one, DeAndre Levy has become one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the game.
Also, the aforementioned scout said that safety Glover Quin (seven interceptions) is back to the high level he showed with Houston two years ago — he was voted to the Pro Bowl this week. And the Lions aren't as weak as they've been at cornerback with second-year pro Darius Slay improving and the offseason signing of Cassius Vaughn as their nickel back.
The last time the teams met, in Week 3 at Detroit, the Lions' defense won decisively. It put up 10 points on backup safety Don Carey's 40-yard return of Eddie Lacy's fumble for a touchdown, and Levy's tackle of Lacy for a safety. The Packers' 223 yards in total offense was their lowest of the season.
Fourteen weeks later, the Packers are a better offense. Coach Mike McCarthy found the team's identity by throwing more, and the Packers' offensive line has improved as the season has gone on for a few reasons.
Anyone who follows the Packers closely knows that fifth-rounder Linsley has been a godsend at center and turned a position of relative weakness the past few years into a strength. Also, second-year pro Bakhtiari is a stronger and better left tackle than he was as a rookie.
And Bulaga is back playing well at right tackle after hip and knee injuries ended his last two seasons. In fact, there's a plausible argument that Bulaga's short absences this season played a key role in two of the Packers' losses.
At Seattle in the opener, Bulaga left the game in the second quarter because of a knee injury. That game turned in the third quarter when his replacement, Derek Sherrod, whiffed on defensive end Michael Bennett's outside rush deep in Packers' territory. Bennett's strip sack of Rodgers ended with a safety and nine-point turnaround — two points for the safety and a Seahawks touchdown drive after the free kick. That was the game.
The Packers cut Sherrod two months later.
Then two weeks ago against the Bills, the Packers had a final shot to pull out the game with the ball at their 10, 1:58 to play and down by six points. Mario Williams, the Bills' Pro Bowl end, had been a nonfactor until early in the fourth quarter, when Bulaga left because of a concussion. On the first play of that final drive Williams powered past JC Tretter, Bulaga's replacement and a center-guard by trade, for a strip-sack safety that put the game away.
Also, the Packers' offensive line has had uncommonly good health. It has had only one full game missed by a starter —Bulaga didn't play in Week 2.
So the Packers' health and chemistry on the line are good, as good as they've been in a decade. But we'll find out how much difference that makes today.
"(The Lions) have the ability to stop the run with their front four and with just six in the box," Sitton said, "and they're able to get after the passer just rushing four. If teams can do that against you, you're going to be in trouble. We've got to negate that and make them bring an extra guy in the box to try and pressure us. We've got to dictate to them what they've got to do."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty