They never could have guessed that Bulaga would be starting with Clifton as bookends on the offensive line.
On Sunday against the New York Jets, Bulaga will be making his fourth consecutive start in place of veteran Mark Tauscher at right tackle. While Bulaga hasn't been perfect, he's gotten steadily better. So much better than when Tauscher's shoulder is good enough to play, the Packers will have a difficult decision on their hands.
In his debut against Washington, he bungled a stunt that led to Aaron Rodgers' overtime interception. Against Miami, he frequently got knocked back by Cameron Wake. Against Minnesota, however, Bulaga turned in his best performance. Matched up against highly regarded Ray Edwards — who offers a similar skill-set to Wake — Bulaga was the clear winner.
"That Edwards kid is a good football player," offensive line coach James Campen said. "Clearly, he's gotten a lot of pressure in the previous films that we've watched. Bryan did a very good job. This was his third start and he didn't have minus plays from the previous two weeks, so he's not making repeat mistakes. He had some mistakes in the game and the neat thing with him is he doesn't make the same mistake twice."
At this point a month ago, it didn't seem far-fetched that Bulaga would have replaced Clifton. Clifton gave up two sacks in the opener against Philadelphia and was benched in the second quarter of the Week 2 game against Buffalo, allegedly because of his chronically sore right knee.
However, Clifton was back in the starting lineup in Week 3 against Chicago and has played exceptionally well the last three weeks.
"I knew I could do it," Clifton said. "I knew I could still play well. But I also knew I needed to get my knee feeling much better. And we were able to do that. Was I concerned? Yeah, I was concerned. Very concerned. It was like, ‘Man, this is really bugging me.' It was the most it had bugged me since I could remember. So, it was definitely concerning. But that's when we started going with one practice a week, really got in here with the trainers, doing everything under the sun to get the inflammation down and get it calmed down."
Clifton has been a full participant at practice only on Thursdays. That's meant a light workload on Friday and the low-impact Saturday walk-through to help his knee feel better for Sunday.
It's worked. Clifton has allowed just one sack since the opener and none over the last three weeks. After being flagged seven times in 12 games last season (five false starts, two holding), Clifton has been flagged only twice this season (both for false starts). Rodgers, who's in his sixth season, went so far as to say he's never seen Clifton play better.
"I hope (that game) is the beginning of something special," Rodgers said of his line as a whole, which didn't allow a sack against the Vikings' vaunted front four. "As a quarterback, that's your best friend there. When I can wake up Monday and Tuesday and have my body feel that good, that's really encouraging from my standpoint."
This week's transactions meant for a long week for outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac.
"I'm doing my job," Greene said when asked if his diet included an extra mug of coffee.
The Packers signed Erik Walden and Diyral Briggs to fortify an outside linebacker position that lost starter Brad Jones and veteran backup Brady Poppinga to season-ending injuries. That left only three outside linebackers on the roster: sacks leader Clay Matthews, undrafted rookie Frank Zombo and first-year player Robert Francois.
"I'm teaching a vast amount of material to two young kids," Greene said while eating nachos in the linebackers' meeting room. "The positive thing is that they both have great attitudes. They're willing to meet with me any time I'm available. Like (Thursday) night, I met with them from 9:30 to roughly about 11. They were missing sleep; we're missing sleep. But, hey, we're driving forward. We're going to meet right now here in about 10 minutes and we're going to meet up there in New York, we're going to meet the morning before the game. I'm connected at the hip with these guys right now."
With the defensive line gutted by a season-ending injury to Mike Neal (not to mention a season-ending injury to Justin Harrell) and injuries that potentially will sideline Ryan Pickett and limit Cullen Jenkins on Sunday, Howard Green was claimed off waivers on Wednesday, arrived Thursday afternoon and practiced for the first time on Friday. It's up to Trgovac to bring Green up to speed enough so he won't have a critical mental breakdown while adding depth at defensive end and nose tackle on Sunday.
"Well, we're going to show up and play," coach Mike McCarthy said.
Nobody denies that the Packers miss Ryan Grant. Back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons are hard to replace.
But in the last three games, Brandon Jackson has provided a productive punch in the backfield.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
And those aren't garbage yards. He's gotten 52 carries on first down for 262 yards (5.0 average).
"I just feel like the opportunities are growing and I'm getting the ball more every game," Jackson said. "Coach is allowing me to get into a rhythm in the running game."
That rhythm can't be overlooked. His 80 carries this season almost equal his last two seasons combined (82; 45 in 2008 and 37 in 2009).
"It's like anything else," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "You're shooting free throws in a basketball game and you don't get a whole lot of opportunities. You get up there and maybe your stroke isn't quite there. I think he's kind of getting his stroke a little bit. He's got more carries now. I think it's probably a repetition thing and experience factors maybe a little bit there, as opposed to being a pinch-hitter or coming in at the last minute."
On the run
One area where the Jets' defense is particularly concerned is Rodgers' ability to make plays with his legs. Rodgers ranks third among quarterbacks with 127 rushing yards (behind Michael Vick's 187 and Josh Freeman's 154) and tops the list with three rushing touchdowns. Since the start of last season, Rodgers leads all quarterbacks with 443 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns and 20 runs of 10-plus yards.
"The thing that impresses me the most about him is his ability on the run," Jets coach Rex Ryan said in a conference call on Wednesday. "He can beat you with his feet and he keeps plays alive. He may be the most accurate quarterback in this league on the run. He can throw going to his right, he can throw going to his left. Those are things that have really been impressive to me about him."
Up and down
The Packers have outscored their opponents 51-17 in the first quarter and 52-23 in the third quarter. That includes a fourth-ranked 20 points on their opening possession of the game and a sixth-ranked 17 points on their opening possession of the second half. That first-drive success in the third quarter stands in stark contrast to a 34-game streak without a touchdown to kick off the third quarter that finally was snapped in Week 16 last year.
The fourth quarter, however, has been their demise, with a 46-24 deficit. Even last week against Minnesota, when neither team scored, the Vikings dominated in terms of yards and time of possession.
"It's interesting," Rodgers said. "Every time you try to fix something, there's obviously something else that might be lacking a little bit. Starting games and starting third quarters have been an area of emphasis here the last couple of years. Unfortunately, we haven't finished the games or the halves as well as we wanted to. I think teams have made some good adjustments on us and we haven't been able to execute second or fourth quarters as well as we wanted to."
Top tight ends
The Packers were fortunate that the Vikings' Visanthe Shiancoe wrongly had a touchdown taken away from him last week. Had he scored, who knows how the outcome would have turned out. Not only that, it would have meant another bad week against opposing tight ends.
In the last five games, the Packers have yielded 30 receptions for 339 yards to their opponents' primary tight end. This week, the challenge is Dustin Keller, who leads the Jets in catches (24), yards (343) and touchdown receptions (five). His touchdown total is tied for second among all NFL tight ends.
"When you have a Braylon Edwards, a Jerricho Cotchery and a Santonio Holmes, that's three pretty darned good receivers, and you also have a great tight end in Dustin Keller," Ryan said. "It's unfortunate that Green Bay lost their tight end (Jermichael Finley). I thought that young man is a superstar. Now, I'm glad he's not playing against us but I wish he was playing against everybody else. I have a great deal of respect for him. Both teams are very hard to defend. That's why I think we can throw the ball as well as run it."
That the Packers' victory over Minnesota went down to the wire should have come as no surprise. Of the Packers' seven games, six have been decided by seven points or less. That includes the last five games, which have had final margins of three, two, three, three and four points.
The Packers played in six games with a final margin of seven points or less all season.
In contrast, the Jets' average margin of victory in their five-game winning streak is 11.8 points.
— Don't turn it over against the Packers. The defense has forced 12 turnovers, with the those takeaways turning into eight touchdowns. Their touchdown percentage of 66.7 trails only Kansas City's 75 percent (six touchdowns on eight takeaways). Green Bay's 56 points off of turnovers trail only the Titans' 63.
— Since Rodgers took over as starting quarterback, the Packers are 8-1 in games in which they have not allowed a sack. In those games, he has a passer rating of 105.8 with 15 touchdowns, five interceptions and 71.5 percent accuracy. How well the Packers can protect Rodgers against the blitz-happy Jets will be a major story line.
— Clifton played in his 150th career game last week against Minnesota. He celebrated the accomplishment by holding Jared Allen without a sack and being nominated for NFC offensive player of the week. He's the 19th player in franchise history to reach the 150-game milestone, including linemen Forrest Gregg, Larry McCarren, Ron Hallstrom, Ken Ruettgers and Frank Winters.
— The Packers got back on track on third down last week by converting 6-of-11 opportunities. One area of concern is on third downs of 4 yards or less, the Packers rank 31st in the league by converting just 40.7 percent of the time (11-of-27). Interestingly, the Packers are almost as effective on third downs of 6 yards or more. They have converted a league-leading 36.8 percent of those (14-of-38). The Jets have a strong defense but they're a surprising 24th on third down (42.0 percent).
— All offseason, fans pointed to this stretch in the schedule as the most difficult. The Packers are at New York on Sunday, followed by home against Dallas, the bye and at Minnesota and Atlanta. The combined record of those teams is 13-12, with the Jets 5-1, Falcons 5-2, Vikings 2-4 and Cowboys 1-5.
— The Packers and Vikings combined for 52 points last week, doing their part as teams averaged 52.6 points in Week 7. That's the second-highest average in any week since the 1970 merger, trailing the 54.4 points scored in Week 7 in 1983.
— With 20 rushing yards on Sunday, the Jets' LaDainian Tomlinson will become the seventh player with 13,000 rushing yards and join Walter Payton as the only players in NFL history with at least 13,000 rushing yards and 4,000 receiving yards.
"He certainly doesn't look like he's lost much to me," Capers said. "He's playing like a man on a mission to prove that he can still play at the high level that he's played in the past. The guy's not only a good runner but he's an excellent receiver and he's a good pass protector."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.