Packers need to keep the pocket clean for Rodgers

Packers need to keep the pocket clean for Rodgers

The film study was hardly extensive. But it didn’t need to be. Aaron Rodgers knew right away that he was looking at a field-tilting player who – lucky for him – would only be playing a handful of snaps that week.

This was last summer, as the Green Bay Packers quarterback did his requisite film study in advance of the team’s preseason game against the St. Louis Rams. Preseason preparation pales in comparison to what the reigning NFL MVP does to get ready for games that count, but even while viewing only limited snippets, Rodgers quickly saw what the whole league is seeing now from Rams second-year defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“I remember watching his first couple games and it was really impressive,” Rodgers said Wednesday, as he and the Packers offense prepped to face Donald and the Rams impressive front on Sunday at Lambeau Field. “And he just keeps on getting better. He had an incredible year last year, and he’s an impact player inside.”

And the fact that Donald – along with fellow defensive tackle Michael Brockers – can have an impact inside could make the Packers’ protection of Rodgers Sunday problematic.

After putting on a clinic against the Seattle Seahawks’ edge rushers on Sept. 20, stepping up into what he called “the sweet spot of the pocket” and either delivering the ball or escaping to his right or left, Rodgers explained that stout play from guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang and center Corey Linsley is vital to the Packers philosophy on protection.

“What makes [the Rams] so tough is, they have Brockers and Donald, who can really push the pocket in the middle,” Rodgers said that week. “When they push the center of the pocket, that makes it tough on the quarterback. You can’t get up in that sweet spot, and you can’t get out.”

Rodgers expounded on that Wednesday, saying, “Most teams have either great guys outside or guys that are going to move the pocket inside. This front four can all get after the passer. That’s the kind of D-line you’d love to have as a D-coordinator.”

The Rams will come to Lambeau Field tied with the Packers for second in the NFL in sacks with 17. Donald (3.5), Robert Quinn (3.0) and Chris Long (2.0) have accounted for 8.5 of them. In last Sunday’s 24-22 victory at Arizona, the Rams sacked Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer four times and recorded 10 quarterback hits.

The Packers, meanwhile, are coming off a 17-3 victory at San Francisco in which Rodgers was sacked a season-high three times after he’d been sacked three times in the first three games combined.

“Their ability to create penetration really sets the whole tone for their defense,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s a big test for us.”

There may be help on the way, however. Veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who missed the last three games after suffering a left knee injury in practice three days before the team’s Sept. 20 game against Seattle, returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday.

Bulaga, who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, avoided the same fate this time, reportedly only damaging the medial collateral ligament and meniscus. Still, he said he’ll have to do more during Thursday’s in-pads practice to show he’s ready to return to game action, especially against a group as good as the Rams’ line.

“They’re a very good front. It’s a good team,” Bulaga said. “This is the NFL. Anytime you’re going to come back you’re going to play good pass rushers or good D-linemen or good defense. I’m not really looking at it from that standpoint. Just getting back into action after three weeks off is a challenge. Tomorrow is a new day and we’ll see how that goes.”

Bulaga’s replacement, Don Barclay, struggled against the 49ers, allowing three sacks. The Packers coaches didn’t give Barclay much blocking help from their running backs and tight ends, however, and if Barclay is the starter again Sunday, they may have to alter their approach.

“We do it when we think it’s necessary,” associate head coach/offense Tom Clements said of giving protection help. “There are times maybe we should do it more. It’s always easy to say after the fact that you wish you would have done things a little differently. That happens every game, whether it’s a pass play or a run play. You sit back and you analyze and you see what happened and try to make adjustments going forward.”

Something else happened against the 49ers that hadn’t happened in the first three games: Linsley, Sitton and Lang allowed San Francisco’s defensive tackles to push them back and collapse the pocket, giving Rodgers less room to operate inside the pocket and fewer escape routes out of it – the exact thing Rodgers said two weeks ago would make life more difficult for him against the Rams.

“That’s something we’ve got to do,” Donald said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters Wednesday afternoon. “He’s a mobile quarterback. He can take off and run. He can move great in the pocket and he can throw on the run. [We need to] just keep him contained, not let him get too comfortable back there because the type of quarterback he is, if he gets comfortable back there, it’s going to be a long day.

“We just have to collapse gaps and don’t give him any step up lanes or throwing lanes to get free. If we do that and keep him bottled up, we should be fine.”