Since the day the news broke about the major renovation being done on the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line, nearly all of the focus has been on who is playing and where they are playing.
But for offensive line coach James Campen, the greater issue will be this: How they are playing.
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). Although the line wasn’t solely to blame for those numbers, the group certainly contributed heavily.
And, for all the talk about the Packers not being an especially physical team – an accusation often levied at the defense – the offensive line also has some say in how much toughness is in the team’s reputation. And Campen’s hope is that his guys won’t just be technically sound and mentally savvy, but also have a nasty edge.
“The players, we've given them all the tools, now let's bring some attitude with it,” Campen said in advance of training camp, which kicks off with the first practice on Friday. “A lot of it comes down to attitude and people you're facing and blocking people. Staying engaged and finishing. They know it has to be better.”
To that end, the Packers did reconfigure their line in a flurry of moves that may very well be unprecedented in the NFL. Even coach Mike McCarthy, who made the final call on the changes, admitted after organized team activity practices ended that he couldn’t think of another NFL team that had done what the Packers have: Moving Bryan Bulaga to left tackle from right tackle; moving Josh Sitton from right guard to left guard; moving T.J. Lang from left guard to right guard; and moving Marshall Newhouse from left tackle to right tackle. Although Newhouse will compete with second-year man Don Barclay, who took over for an injured Bulaga at right tackle last year, for the starting job, Newhouse was the one working with the No. 1 offensive line throughout OTAs and minicamp. Barclay, meanwhile, worked at center, right guard and right tackle.
The only constant on the line, if you can call him that, is center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who took over at center with two games in the regular season when veteran Jeff Saturday was benched. Saturday was released after the season so he could sign a ceremonial one-day contract with the Indianapolis Colts so he could retire with them. Dietrich-Smith finished out the season (two regular-season starts, two postseason starts) and has the trust of his quarterback.
So do his linemates, but their focus at this point is simply acquainting – or re-acquainting, in some cases – themselves with their new positions.
“It kind of messes with your head. You’re used to being one side, you’re used to being on this side of the hash and certain protections, looking at the linebacker at a certain angle. Everything is a little bit different,” said Sitton, who moved in part because he and Bulaga have played together since early in the 2010 season and work well together. “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.”
Although Sitton worked at left guard at the Pro Bowl, where McCarthy and his staff coached the NFC, he didn’t know the move was coming. The linemen learned of the change on the first day of the offseason on-field work, so they had their individual position workouts (IPWs), OTAs and minicamp to start adjusting. The next step will be camp and preseason games.
“I think the guys have done a good job with switching both sides. It just comes down to their footwork and timing and those types of things,” Campen said. “As far as assignments, it hasn't been a problem at all. It's progressing nicely, they've done a good job. They've had IPWs, (OTAs), and another step will be when the pads come on, get them up field.”
The player who has responded as the coaches had hoped, at least based on early returns, is Newhouse, who started all 18 games (including playoffs) last year at left tackle and started 10 games at left tackle in 2011 after veteran Chad Clifton went down with hamstring and back injuries. According to analysis done by ProFootballFocus.com, Newhouse was charged with nine sacks, eight quarterback hits and 37 quarterback pressures in 1,256 snaps last season, but Rodgers likes how Newhouse has responded.
“I think Marshall has really responded to the challenge,” Rodgers said. “I give Marshall a lot of credit. I think he has played a tough position in a tough division, and he’s played well. Now he’s moving to the right side, which is a little foreign to him although he has played a little bit on that side for us, and I think he’s done a good job. I think it’s going to be evident when you put the pads on this summer, when he’s going against Clay (Matthews) and Nick Perry and Mike Neal and Datone when he’s out wide in their three-down front, this is going to be a good test for him. but I think it’s going to be good. It’s going to be good for Bryan, going against Clay every day, too.”
A year ago, the concern about the line was the blatant lack of depth, as only seven linemen made the 53-man roster coming out of camp (with Barclay, an undrafted rookie free agent, being the seventh). Guard Greg Van Roten was promoted from the practice squad, and with the addition of fourth-round picks David Bakhtiari and JC Tretter (although Tretter could miss the season after breaking his ankle in the first OTA practice), the depth is improved – even if 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod never recovers from the broken leg that has sidelined him since December 2011.
Instead, the concern is with the starters and how they’ll fare in their new roles. It figures to be one of the biggest storylines not only of camp, but of the season.
“You can’t think too much about it, you can’t make it bigger than what it is,” Lang said. “Football is football. You just have to keep plugging away every day and stay positive, try not to create too many questions about it and get out there, do your job and try to get better every day.”
QUICK READ: OFFENSIVE LINE
Greg Van Roten
Will the reconfigured line actually work?
Three words: It has to. The move may smack of desperation to some, but head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen insist they thought long and hard about it. It’s impossible to deny the reality that last year’s group, as it was configured, wasn’t good enough. If the old faces in new places jell quickly and play better, then it was worth it. If they don’t, then it was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ health will again be in peril, just as it was when he absorbed an NFL-high 51 sacks last season. Even allowing for the fact that Rodgers set a career high in attempts and was also at fault on some of those takedowns, that’s an astronomical number. The team had to do something, and this was the call.
On the rise
Sitton earned his first Pro Bowl nod as a replacement for San Francisco’s Mike Iupati, who was unable to play for the NFC because he was in the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, Sitton deserved the accolade – more than center Jeff Saturday, who said so himself after he was voted onto the team after being benched by the Packers – and should get hazard pay for the number of games he’s played next to various right tackles. In his 72 starts including playoffs since 2008, there have been seven, to be exact: Bulaga, Mark Tauscher, Newhouse, Lang, Sherrod, Barclay and the forgettable Allen Barbre. While the move to left guard will be a challenge, at least he gets to stay next to Bulaga, with whom he says he’s built excellent rapport. “Playing next to somebody for so long, you build that chemistry, you build that friendship. You build that bond with a guy,” Sitton said. “You learn how to fit run blocks with somebody and like you said, I’ve played next to a lot of tackles here, so I know difficult it is to be thrown in with different people. It’s a big thing. I’m glad we moved together. Hopefully, we’ll kick some ass with it.”
Player to watch
The line shuffle is predicated on the thought that Bulaga, a 2010 first-round pick who began his NFL career at left tackle behind veteran Chad Clifton, will be an appreciable upgrade over Newhouse, who started 28 games there the past two seasons. Bulaga was a left tackle coming out of Iowa, and while he never publicly bellyached about not playing there, he will admit that it’s the position he prefers. Now, we’ll see if he’s up to the challenge. The concern is that Bulaga will struggle with speed rushers on that side, given that his worst game of the season last year – when he surrendered two sacks, one quarterback hit and eight hurries in 76 snaps against Seattle – came against Bruce Irvin, the Seahawks’ fast end. Don’t forget, he’s coming back from a hip injury that ended his season after 537 snaps and nine games. “It’s like a lefty batting right-handed and not being ambidextrous. You’re flipping sides, you’re flipping footwork,” Bulaga said. “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.”
Depending on Sherrod’s health, it could end up being a three-way race for the job with Newhouse, Barclay and the 2011 first-rounder. But given the way Barclay was moving around during OTAs – from right tackle to right guard and even to center – the coaches could be prepping him for the primary backup job as a jack-of-all-trades sixth offensive lineman. Nevertheless, Newhouse will be pushed, and after initially feeling sorry for himself after what had to feel like a demotion, he seemed to rebound and had a good offseason, according to his coaches. “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,” Newhouse said. “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.”
Since taking over in 2005, general manager Ted Thompson has selected 17 offensive linemen in his nine drafts: Junius Coston (fifth round) and Will Whitticker (seventh) in 2005; Daryn Colledge (second), Jason Spitz (third) and Tony Moll (fifth) in 2006; Barbre (fourth) in 2007; Sitton (fourth) and Breno Giacomini (fifth) in 2008; Lang (fourth) and Jamon Meredith (fifth) in 2009; Bulaga (first) and Newhouse (fifth) in 2010; Sherrod (first) and Caleb Schlauderaff (sixth) in 2011; Datko (seventh) in 2012; and Bakhtiari (fourth) and Tretter (fourth) this year. There have been hits and misses, but the most important miss to date has been on Sherrod, who struggled early as a rookie in 2011 and hasn’t seen even the practice field for an 11-on-11 snap since breaking his leg in Kansas City in December 2011.
“Who knows what the emphasis is going to be, we’ll see during the season. Obviously, we have the best quarterback in the league, so I think we’re going to throw the ball like we always have. Hopefully with a mix of different guys – we have a lot of different talent at running back. We have big guys, small guys, they’re all different. I’m excited to see how these new kids run the ball. Who knows what the emphasis is going to be really until the season begins.” – Sitton, on whether the offensive linemen will be run-blocking more this season.
Next: Defensive line.
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.