Clifton was the gift that kept on giving last season. Coming off an injury-plagued 2009 season that forced him to the sideline for four full games and the end of four others, Clifton provided one of the most unexpected and critical performances by any of the Green Bay Packers during their march to the championship.
On the surface, the left tackle's 11th NFL season could be described best as "underwhelming." According to STATS, he allowed a career-high 8.5 sacks. Clifton, however, saved his best for last. With the Packers facing six consecutive must-win games, Clifton stood tall against a who's-who list of pass rushers.
According to data from Pro Football Reference: In Week 16 against the Giants, he allowed no sacks and one quarterback pressure while locked up mostly against Osi Umenyiora.
In Week 17 against the Bears, he allowed no sacks and one pressure while locked up mostly against Julius Peppers.
In the wild card game against Philadelphia, he allowed no sacks but three pressures while locked up mostly against Trent Cole.
In the divisional game at Atlanta, he allowed one sack and one pressure while locked up mostly against John Abraham.
In the NFC Championship Game against Chicago, he allowed no sacks and one pressure while locked up mostly against Peppers.
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The only defender in that list who didn't register at least 10 sacks was Peppers, who finished with eight. Counting Peppers for each of the games, those pass rushers averaged 10.2 sacks.
Combined against Clifton, they got merely one, which is why he was voted to his first Pro Bowl after making it as an alternate on three other occasions.
Whether Clifton can enjoy the same kind of success obviously remains to be seen. While starting every game for the first time since 2007, Clifton missed significant action in just two games in 2010: when he struggled with a sore knee and was replaced by rookie Bryan Bulaga in the first half of the Week 2 against Buffalo and when he missed three series in the first half with a stinger in the NFC title game against Chicago.
At 35, the odds probably aren't with Clifton enjoying another superb, healthy season. Clifton's performance as a pass blocker ranked 11th among all left tackles, according to a formula used by Pro Football Focus. Among PFF's top-10 left tackles, their average age is 27.2 with only Minnesota's Bryant McKinnie (No. 10; age 31) and Carolina's Jordan Gross (No. 6; 30) being even 30 years old.
It's a young man's game. That, of course, is why the Packers invested their first-round pick in an offensive tackle for the second consecutive draft, with Mississippi State All-American Derek Sherrod being the likely heir to Clifton's spot in the lineup.
"Not only do you get the quality person, I think you're getting a quality football player," Packers director of college scouting John Dorsey told Packer Report for our contribution to the annual Packers Yearbook. "He's shown that he's got the ability to play left tackle in the SEC against some of the finest pass rushers in the country and he's held his own. You'd like for him to be the heir apparent but he's got to earn it. We'll find out. We think we've got a player there. They all rave about him — they all rave about his work ethic, they all rave about his ability. It's going to be exciting to see his development."
Exciting, yes, but with the lockout denying Sherrod a chance to learn the offense during organized team activities and minicamps, it's as important as ever for Clifton to feel healthy and fresh when the season kicks off. The line between success and failure is especially slim at left tackle. The Packers need the 35-year-old Clifton to play as well in 2011 as the 34-year-old Clifton played at the end of the 2010 season.
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.