While the Green Bay Packers might be viewed as Aaron Rodgers’ team – and probably rightfully so, given the quarterback’s standing among the game’s top players and the innate importance of the position – that’s not the way he sees it these days.
Amid a rash of injuries to the team’s skill-position players on offense, where three of the team’s biggest offensive playmakers (wide receiver Randall Cobb, tight end Jermichael Finley and wide receiver James Jones) are sidelined, and still without their biggest star on defense (outside linebacker Clay Matthews, still out with a broken thumb), the Packers team that will face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night at Mall of America Field at the Metrodome will instead be led by the guys up front – on both sides of the ball.
Just ask the player who’s the so-called leader of the team.
“I think you’re really seeing the offensive and defensive lines taking over the team, per se,” Rodgers said earlier this week on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “You’re seeing these guys step up into greater leadership roles, (and) they’re playing really, really well. We’re running the football well, we’re stopping the run well, and those are two important components to being a championship-style team, which we strive to be.
“We like the way that’s going. That’s kind of the way the team is shaping up. The big fellas are taking greater leadership roles and playing really well, and we’re trying to make as many plays as we can on the outside.”
Indeed, as the Packers (4-2) enter Sunday night’s game against the Vikings (1-5), their offense ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing (134.7 yards per game) and their defense ranks third in the league in fewest yards allowed (79.0 yards per game). The team hasn’t finished in the top 10 in both categories in the same season since 2003, when they ranked third in rushing and 10th in run defense, and the run defense is on a franchise-record pace, ahead of the 83.3 yards per game they allowed in 2009, when they led the NFL in run defense and set the franchise record in that department.
“I think the culture of this team a little bit has changed with the offensive line and defensive line play,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “We’ve been playing pretty well, so we know that the onus is more on us more than ever right now, and we take pride in that.
“The defensive line has a done a great job of taking over the defense. We have one of the best defensive lines in the game, definitely one of the deepest. It’s something that we definitely have talked about. We talk about it as a line, and we take pride in going out there and being able to win games in a different fashion than we have before.”
There are a variety of reasons for the lines emerging as tone-setters for the team. For one, sheer numbers: On the offensive line, the Packers have seven linemen (starters David Bakhtiari, Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang and Don Barclay, plus backups Marshall Newhouse and Lane Taylor) on the 53-man roster, two on the physically unable to perform list (Derek Sherrod, JC Tretter) and two more on injured reserve (Bryan Bulaga, Greg Van Roten). On the defensive line, they have seven (B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, C.J. Wilson, Datone Jones, Mike Daniels and Josh Boyd, not including hybrid end/outside linebacker Mike Daniels) on the 53-man roster plus another (Jerel Worthy) set to come off the PUP.
But it’s also the way each group was challenged and answered those challenges that have set examples for the rest of the locker room.
The offensive line is having its success after an offseason renovation project that moved four players to different positions. Sitton and Lang, who delivered an impassioned pregame speech at Baltimore on Oct. 13 that multiple players lauded as one of the best they’ve ever heard, have evolved into locker-room leaders of the highest order.
“They’re expressing themselves in a verbal way. Typically, linemen will sit back, but now our group is really expressing itself,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “When they feel like they’re productive and getting better, then those things resonate. Everyone works their tails off on a football team, but the O-line and D-line, we do things in practice where we really go get it. And I think that stuff builds confidence and it carries over.”
The defensive line, meanwhile, got its message from head coach Mike McCarthy when training camp ended and so many linemen were kept at a position where, in a 3-4 scheme, some teams skimp.
“Coach called us to a higher responsibility. That’s why he kept so many D-linemen. He said he needed for us to go out and play, be the most physical group – the offensive and defensive lines,” Pickett recalled. “He just put the onus on us. He told us we have to be physical, we have to run the ball, we have to stop the run. That’s going to be the signature of our team this year. He said it when camp ended.
“I’ve never heard him say anything like that. They put a lot of faith in us. We have a good group. We embrace it. I’d say we’re doing pretty good. This week is a good challenge for us. But we’re pretty happy with the way things are going.”
Asked about his speech during the week, McCarthy pointed to the defensive line depth as proof that he and general manager Ted Thompson will keep the best 53 players, regardless of position, and that with great depth comes great responsibility.
“We don’t sit there and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to keep exactly this many defensive linemen, this many offensive linemen, this many linebackers.’ Obviously, you have a need for certain numbers at certain positions, (but) the defensive line depth was evident,” McCarthy explained. “So, we kept the extra defensive linemen because, A, they earned a job and, (B), just the way we feel we need to play.
“The game starts up front. Hopefully, we can keep those guys healthy and I think they’ll definitely be one of the primary reasons why we win.”
Before last Sunday’s game against Cleveland, McCarthy reinforced his point, this time to both line groups.
“Our big guys are where it starts,” McCarthy recounted. “We talked about it Saturday night in the team meeting. ‘We’re going to lean on our big dogs.’ That will definitely be part of our focus as we go forward.”
And that’s fine with everyone – Rodgers, and the linemen he’s happy to defer to.
“Offensively, we’ve taken over in the sense of trying to communicate better and getting our point across as far as certain things we want to do,” Sitton said. “On defense, Coach knew they had to be the strength of the defense, and they’ve done that. They’ve accepted that challenge. Everything starts up front – always. They make that defense go.
“Lately, it’s just been that the O-line and D-line have to take over the team. With everything that’s gone on, especially injury-wise, we’ve got to put more on us.”
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.