Line could be Packers’ undoing
GREEN BAY, Wis. — No quarterback in the NFL this season has endured a game like Aaron Rodgers did during the Green Bay Packers’ 38-10 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday night.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers was under duress – sacked, hurried or hit – on 17 of his 33 dropbacks against the Giants, a whopping 51.5 percent of the time. That’s the highest percentage of any qualifying quarterback in the NFL this season.
Here’s the problem: The way this year has gone – both before right tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending hip injury Nov. 4 against Arizona, and since the resulting reshuffling of the line – it’s hardly out of the norm.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, Rodgers has been under the 10th-highest amount of duress on the season of 34 quarterback qualifiers, having been sacked, hurried or hit on 26 percent of his dropbacks for the season. Philadelphia’s Michael Vick has the highest percentage at 38 percent; Denver’s Peyton Manning has the lowest percentage at 15 percent.
With the Giants’ five sacks on Sunday night, Rodgers has now been sacked an NFL-high 37 times. That puts him on pace for 53, which would break the team record of 50 sacks he absorbed during the 2009 season. The franchise record for total sacks allowed in a single season is 62, set in 1990 when Don Majkowski, Anthony Dilweg and Blair Kiel were the victims. Houston’s David Carr holds the record for most sacks absorbed in a single season by one quarterback – 76 in 2002.
Only the Arizona Cardinals have allowed more sacks than the 37 yielded by the Packers.
“Any time you’re playing against a good defense that has good pass rushers, going into a game that’s a concern. We try to plan appropriately each game. Hopefully we can execute the plan as well as we need to,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Monday afternoon. “Each plan that we have, we have a seven-man protection, a six-man protection and a five-man protection. And we utilized all of those last night. And we also utilized an eight-man protection at one point. So we just have to try to mix it up and see what we can do to shore it up a little bit.”
Bulaga’s injury left the Packers, already thin on the line, with limited options. Left guard T.J. Lang shifted to right tackle to replace Bulaga, and Evan Dietrich-Smith entered at left guard to replace Lang. That’s how the Packers have started each of the last two games, and the only other offensive linemen on the roster are undrafted rookie free agents Greg Van Roten and Don Barclay.
While Rodgers has been guilty at times of holding onto the ball too long, resulting in sacks, ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer said on ESPN Radio’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd that the reigning NFL MVP’s level of play has masked the Packers’ other deficiencies, including on the line.
“When you watch the Green Bay Packers, what you see on many of their good pass plays are runners coming through – rushers beating offensive linemen who are going to get a hit on Aaron Rodgers if the ball isn’t out so quick,” Dilfer said.
“You start adding those up, eventually teams are going to be able to play a secondary look where they can reroute the receivers a little bit, take away the quick throw, take away the quick reads and give their defensive line a little extra time to get there and actually get home.
“That’s what you saw with the Giants (Sunday) night, and the book gets written on every single team in this league, and the book on the Green Bay Packers is they’re thin at a couple spots on the roster, especially the offensive line. And your quarterback can only save you from so much.
“The year they won the Super Bowl, I still can’t believe they did. That’s why I still think it’s the single greatest stretch of quarterbacking we’ve ever seen in this league, what Aaron Rodgers did, because he just masked so many other flaws the last couple years in key games. Now you’re really starting to see how people have gotten to that chapter of the book on the Green Bay Packers and exposed it and nobody’s good enough to overcome it.”
The line with Bulaga was hardly perfect – remember that eight-sacks-in-the-first-half debacle in Seattle, before the controversial finish? – but now it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the Packers’ protection problems could prove to be their undoing. Four of their final five games are against division foes – vs. Minnesota at Lambeau Field on Sunday, vs. Detroit on Dec. 9, at Chicago on Dec. 16 and at Minnesota on Dec. 30 – all of whom have solid pass-rushing defensive lines.
“When your quarterback is under pressure, I thought it affected me (as a play-caller),” McCarthy admitted after Sunday night’s game. (McCarthy did not hold his usual day-after-the-game press briefing on Monday, pushing it back to Tuesday instead.)
“And with that, I probably didn’t call the best game I’ve called in my time doing this. You have to protect your quarterback. It’s the No. 1 responsibility of our offense. You’d be hypocritical to sit here and say that we built our offense around making the quarterback successful, starting with the runs, protection and into the passing game, and then we’re going to go out and he’s going to take that many hits. That’s not what we’re looking for.
“The New York Giants have an outstanding defensive line. We knew that coming in. We’ve really known that for the last couple years. We had a plan. We didn’t execute it very well. We got away from it. We went to some spread things and that wasn’t the answer. That was probably poor play selection on my part. But they did a hell of a job. They were dynamic, very talented and very productive.”
And the Packers’ reshuffled offensive line was not. The unit will have to be appreciably better down the stretch if the team is going to reach its goals.
“I don’t call them reshuffled. The starting group? They’ve had moments when things looked very, very good,” offensive line coach James Campen said last week. “Sometimes, it takes a little while for things to click in, getting familiar with people.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.