Packers linemen fall in line
The initial meeting was brief, the information delivered matter-of-factly, without explanation.
When coach Mike McCarthy decided to reconfigure the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line, the five players involved – Bryan Bulaga, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Marshall Newhouse and Don Barclay – were summoned to offensive line coach James Campen’s third-floor office. It was April 29, the first day of Phase II of the offseason program.
The five beefy linemen crammed into the small room and were told the news: Bulaga was moving from right tackle to left tackle; Sitton and Lang were flip-flopping their spots, with Sitton shifting to left guard and Lang moving to right guard; and Newhouse moving to right tackle, where he’ll compete with Barclay and others. The players then headed out to the practice field, as it was the first day that on-field work was allowed as part of Individual Position Work sessions.
“It was kind of a quick meeting. Basically, it was, ‘This is what’s happening: You guys are playing here, you guys are playing here,’” Lang recounted Tuesday, after the first open organized team activity practice of the offseason. “You’re thinking, ‘Am I not playing good enough? Am I losing my job?’ I don’t want to say any of us are secure, because there’s always competition, but …”
But the news was a shock. None of the players had been tipped off to the idea beforehand, even though changes were to be expected after quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times in 2012 and the Packers’ running game ranked 20th in the league in rushing per game (106.4) and 22nd in yards per attempt (3.9).
“I think we’re all a little surprised. That’s a big move,” Sitton said Tuesday. “You don’t see a four-position switch on the offensive line very often, so it’s definitely surprising, but at the end of the day, it’s football. We’ll get used to it. We’ll continue to grow and hopefully it’ll be a good change for us.”
According to Lang, McCarthy came down to the offensive line meeting room later in the day to further explain his reasoning. Then, it was time to get to work.
“We all talked about it for 20 minutes, whatever it was, and got a better explanation why it was happening, and it started to make more sense to us,” Lang said. “(But) when coach tells you to do something, or asks you to do something, you just have to do it. That’s how it works.
“It was definitely awkward for us the first couple days out on the field for IPWs. Your stance is uncomfortable, your footwork is awful, but we still have a lot of time before we open up the season to make sure we’re getting better at our new spots. You just have to keep a positive attitude, go out there and compete every day and just do what you can do to get better.”
Tuesday’s practice was yet another step in that process. Although OTA practices began Monday, McCarthy said Tuesday’s practice was the first to feature 11-on-11 work after Monday’s practice focused on fundamentals and position drills. On the first snap of the 11-on-11 sessions, it was Bulaga, Sitton, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, Lang and Newhouse left-to-right in front of Rodgers.
But while working together at their new positions was important, individually adjusting both mentally and physically is the biggest challenge, several players said.
“It’s like a lefty batting right-handed and not being ambidextrous,” said Bulaga, who was a left tackle in college at Iowa but has played almost exclusively right tackle since entering the league as the team’s first-round pick in 2010. “You’re flipping sides, you’re flipping footwork. I think it’s a little more physical than mental, just because what we’re doing mentally is just flipping calls and flipping plays in our head. That’s really all it is. The physical standpoint of footwork, hand placement – everything is turned around a little bit. It takes a little bit of time to get used to that.”
Added Lang: “You can’t think too much about it; you can’t make it bigger than what it is. You just have to keep plugging away every day and stay positive.”
That’s exactly what Newhouse is trying to do, even though the move is hard to see as anything other than a demotion for him. Newhouse started 13 regular-season games in 2011 after injuries to Bulaga and veteran left tackle Chad Clifton. When Clifton was released in April 2012, the Packers opted not to move Bulaga to left tackle and stuck with Newhouse on the left side.
According to analysis done by ProFootballFocus.com, Newhouse was charged with nine sacks, eight quarterback hits and 37 quarterback pressures in 1,256 snaps in 18 starts last season. Lang, who played through elbow and forearm injuries and missed one game, allowed nine sacks, five hits and 12 pressures in 1,149 snaps. Bulaga only played 587 snaps last year because of a Nov. 4 hip injury that ended his season, but before going down he allowed four sacks, three quarterback hits and 20 pressures, including two sacks, one hit and eight pressures in the Packers’ Week 3 loss at Seattle.
Sitton went to his first Pro Bowl as an injury replacement last year and was charged with three sacks, two hits and 16 pressures in 18 games. Barclay, who was called upon to fill in for Bulaga after Lang struggled at right tackle, played 459 snaps and was charged with five sacks, four hits and 19 pressures.
“You’re kind of taken aback,” Newhouse said Tuesday. “But I looked inward and acknowledged my role in them having to make the decision (while) also knowing that I can play football and knowing that I had a lot of success at the same time.
“I don’t want to be perceived as the weak part of the line. That sucks. I want to make myself into a strength of the offensive line. It’s motivation. I do realize they had to make a decision, and my play was part of them thinking they had to make a decision. So I understand that, I accept that. But I also know I’ve had a lot of success, so I have to accept the role I’ve been given and go at it 100 percent. That’s all I can really do.”
Asked if he thinks he’ll get a fair shot at right tackle, Newhouse replied, “I can’t answer that. I’m just going to play.”
Discussing the move after practice Tuesday, McCarthy reiterated that the move was made to put the team’s best linemen, Bulaga and Sitton, on the left side to protect Rodgers’ blind side. As for how long before the Sept. 8 regular-season opener at San Francisco he’ll have his starting five set, McCarthy said he didn’t know.
“I’d like to go maybe two years in a row without answering this question about your offensive line,” McCarthy said. “Would I like to have five guys ready to say they’re our starting five? And play 19 games? That[‘s great. But we have to get them all ready.”