Packers lay it on the line

Packers lay it on the line

One thing you can count on in a conversation with David Bakhtiari is, you’ll always know where you stand. If you suggest something to him that he deems, well, stupid, that will be abundantly clear immediately.

And so it was on Christmas Eve, after the Green Bay Packers second-year left tackle and his offensive linemates had received 55-inch curved Samsung SmartTVs from Aaron Rodgers that it was posited that the least Bakhtiari and his pals could do in return was keep the quarterback safe during Sunday’s winner-take-all regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.

After all, the Lions’ front had gotten the best of the Packers’ linemen during a 19-7 Week 3 loss in Detroit, and their effective protection of Rodgers – combined with paving the way for running back Eddie Lacy to have an effective, productive day against the league’s top run defense – could very well decide the NFC North title.

But Bakhtiari was having none of it.

“That’s not a gift, that’s my job,” Bakhtiari said dismissively. “We pride ourselves on that. So we’re going to give him the best protection possible – with or without gifts.”

Nearby and shortly thereafter, another straight-shooting lineman, recently minted Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton, was being similarly dismissive of another idea. For weeks, Rodgers has credited the line for setting the tone and leading the way for an offense that enters the final week second in the NFL in scoring (30.4 points per game) and sixth in yards (386.7 yards per game). After a slow start, the offense had found its rhythm, and Rodgers credited the line for making that happen.

Considering Rodgers was sacked nine times, hit four more times and hurried 18 times during the Packers’ 1-2 start, and Lacy averaged just 37.6 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry over the first three weeks, it’s tough to disagree with Rodgers that the line’s improvement has been a major factor.

“I think so, production-wise. We didn’t start the season [well],” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “It wasn’t our best year, just as far as our performance and quality of play. And so it’s definitely increased on our whole football team, particularly on offense. It’s definitely increased since the first game.”

Added rookie center Corey Linsley: “I think that is where we’ve developed the most. We’ve found our rhythm, we’ve found kind of our identity and everything.”

Not only has the group cleared space for Lacy to have his second straight 1,000-yard season – and perhaps an even more impressive year than he had as a rookie, since he’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry (0.6 yards per rush better than last season) while gaining 1,039 yards and scoring nine touchdowns – but the protection of Rodgers has been immaculate. He enters Sunday having been sacked 28 times, which puts him on pace for the fewest sacks he’s absorbed during a full season. He was sacked 21 times in just eight-plus games last season, and a career-low 31 times in 2010, when he missed one game with a concussion suffered during the first half of a loss to the Lions the week before.

In his time as a starter, Rodgers was sacked 34 times in 2008, 50 times in 2009, 31 times in 2010, 36 times in 2011, 51 times in 2012 and 21 times last year.

“I haven’t been here as many years as [the other linemen], but this is about as well as an offensive line can play, just keeping the quarterback clean,” said center JC Tretter, who has watched the line closely after a preseason knee injury knocked him out of the starting lineup. “Not just keeping the sacks down, but keeping the hits down. It’s great to not give up sacks, but if you’re not giving up sacks but you’re giving up 12 hits a game, that’s just as bad. So I think the ability to keep the pocket clean for him this year, these guys have done a heck of a job.”

According to advanced statistics site Pro Football Focus, Rodgers and backup Matt Flynn enter Sunday having absorbed a combined 18 QB hits and hurried 77 times.

For comparison, the Packers allowed 31 QB hits and 102 hurries in 2008, 31 hits and 119 hurries in 2009, 20 hits and 114 hurries in 2010, 26 hits and 115 hurries in 2011, 28 hits and 112 hurries in 2012 and 24 hits and 108 hurries last season.

The Lions, meanwhile, come into the game not only on pace to have the sixth-best run defense in NFL history (63.8 yards per game), but having sacked opposing QBs 41 times (sixth in the NFL) and registered a whopping 74 QB hits and 174 hurries according to PFF.

And so, it stood to reason that as good as the Packers’ line has been this year, the group would have to be even better this week.

Not exactly, Sitton said.

“We’ve got to be at our absolute best every week,” he replied. “There are some games that are obviously easier up front than others, just based on your opponent, and this is definitely not one of those. They’re a good front. There’s no doubt about that. We definitely have to step up and play well up front.”

And that’s one thing everyone could agree on – sort of.

“It’s huge,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s our last game of the regular season. It’s against Detroit. We’re going to bring it. They’re going to bring it. The winner of this game gets a first-round bye.

“We’re going to do our best to run the ball and do what we can on the ground, and do what we can in air. But at the end of the day, our biggest thing is to make sure we have more points than them.”

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.

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