Left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley doesn't have the nasty reputation for bone-rattling hits or the NFL Defensive Player of the Year or Super Bowl MVP credentials of Harrison , but the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder is more than capable of giving opposing linemen fits and putting quarterbacks on their backs. In 2010, Woodley had 50 tackles, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. He's the only player in NFL history to record at least one sack in each of his first six playoff games, with a total of 10 in those games. Harrison on Clifton is a key matchup to be sure, but how Bulaga handles Woodley will have a lot to do with the outcome of Super Bowl XLV.
"It's definitely going to be a great challenge," Bulaga said. "The Super Bowl — it's just an honor to be here. I'm trying to look at it as a game, a game that we're going into. We're in the Super Bowl, but we're playing the Steelers (for) the title of the Super Bowl. Everyone says, ‘He's a rookie, he has never been in the Super Bowl, he doesn't know what it's about,' but it's a game. Once the ball is kicked off, it's a game and all those titles go out the window. It's you verses the guy across from you and that's what it is. Obviously, they (Woodley and Harrison) pose a great challenge to a tackle. It's just a matter of just being fundamentally sound and doing things right. Playing within the scheme and trying to do my best to keep those guys away from Aaron."
Bulaga wasn't necessarily expected to be in the starting lineup at all this season – at least not at right tackle. When the Packers selected the Crystal Lake, Ill., native with the No. 23 pick overall, the thought was that he was either a year away from a starting spot at left tackle or might push Daryn Colledge out of the starting left guard job. When Colledge rose to the challenge once again and held off Bulaga, it looked like the rookie might spend the season watching from the sideline.
But as is often the case in the NFL, and especially the case for Green Bay this season, it was an injury to one player that provided an opportunity for another. Bulaga replaced struggling Clifton during the second half of the Week 2 game against Buffalo but Clifton was back in the lineup the following week. In Week 4 against Detroit, veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher, who opened the season as the starting right tackle for 10 of the past 11 seasons and had 133 starts under his belt, injured his shoulder while blocking on an extra point. Suddenly, it was showtime for Bulaga.
Bulaga was inserted as the new starting right tackle beginning Oct. 10 at Washington. As with any rookie, there was a learning curve. At times, Bulaga flashed the power and footwork that saw him dominate for the Hawkeyes, when he was the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year. Other times, he looked like a raw talent in over his head.
Heading into Super Bowl XLV, however, Bulaga has established himself as a solid player with great upside. He gave up 10.5 sacks through 12 regular-season starts, according to STATS, but has been money through the playoffs by stonewalling Philadelphia's Juqua Parker, Atlanta's Kroy Biermann and Chicago's Israel Idonije. Just as important, Bulaga's been penalty-free in the postseason after six false starts and three holding calls in the regular season. Two of those false starts and two of the holds came in the season finale against Chicago . But one of the things Bulaga has learned from the man he replaced is to have a short memory about stuff like that.
"If you have a bad play or make a mistake, you just let it go and move on to the next play because if you dwell on something for too long, it's going to start affecting your play throughout the entire game," Bulaga said. "If you make mistakes or make an error, just forget about it and move on to the next play. Pretend like the last one never even happened."
Ideally, Bulaga won't have any mistakes against Woodley and his teammates, who ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed. It's a tall order. And any mistake could be costly. Especially one that gets Rodgers smothered by a black and yellow jersey. Of course, that's exactly what Woodley has in mind.
"I think the guy that you got to get uncomfortable first is the guy you are rushing up against," Woodley said. "He's got to feel you from the very first snap. You have to set the tone the first snap. Whether you hit him with a bull rush or whatever, you got to let him know that's what he's getting all day. Once you get that first sack early, you get him off his heels a bit because now everybody is looking at him, blaming him like, ‘You could have got the quarterback hurt.' Now he's really trying to stop you. You need to keep beating him, physically and mentally."
Woodley's expecting Rodgers and Co. to try exploiting the Steelers' 3-4 defense with four- and five-receiver sets. But he's seen teams try that before, and he's confident that once again they'll be able to deal with it.
"It's just making adjustments, going out there and changing up a few things because we know teams want to spread us out, try to get the receivers and linebackers matched up because they feel like they have an advantage over us," Woodley said. "But I think that our outside linebackers, we do a good job covering."
Bulaga doesn't have to worry about Woodley dropping into coverage, but with 25.5 sacks between him and Harrison, including the playoffs, it's the blitzing that will be the biggest concern. The fewer plays Bulaga needs to forget on Sunday and the less everybody is looking at him, the better his chances are of ending the day as a Super Bowl champion.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.