Season Could Be On The Line On Christmas

Given the state of the Packers' offensive line, Green Bay's season could be at stake against Chicago. Aaron Rodgers, who has been sacked 36 times, will be playing behind a makeshift line and against a Chicago defensive line that has 25 sacks from its starters alone.

Win or lose on Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, the best present for the Green Bay Packers would be a healthy Aaron Rodgers.

Certainly, the Packers would like to beat the Bears. With San Francisco beating up on Pittsburgh on Monday night and facing Seattle on Saturday, the Packers probably are going to need a victory to lock up homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

But that's neither here nor there at the moment.

With Bryan Bulaga likely to be sidelined with a sprained left kneecap, the Packers figure to be without their preferred starters at three of five positions. That is about the worst news imaginable with the Bears coming to town.

"Yeah, I'm not satisfied with where our pass protection is at," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Monday when we asked him his level of concern with the next two opponents being Chicago and Detroit. "I don't think anybody in that room, hopefully offensively, is happy with where it's at. We've got to do it better. I think part of it yesterday, at times, was individually we didn't perform up to our capabilities. At times yesterday maybe the quarterback didn't have a place to go with the ball as quickly as we would have liked. Once again, it's not one guy. We've got to do it better. When you have four sacks in a game, the offensive coordinator should be concerned."

Of Chicago's 30 sacks, 29 of them have come from its defensive line, including 25 by starters Julius Peppers (10), Henry Melton (seven), Israel Idonije (four) and Amobi Okoye (four).

Pass protection was a major issue entering this season and it's an issue that has returned with a vengeance. In his first three seasons as the starter, Rodgers was sacked 115 times. Those 34 sacks in 2008, 50 in 2009 and 31 in 2010 equated to 38.3 per season, an appallingly high number.

During a lengthy session with a handful of Packers beat writers before the start of training camp, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin hoped that number could be reduced to 24. Through the first four games, that hope appeared to be reality. With ageless Chad Clifton at left tackle, T.J. Lang appearing to be an upgrade over Daryn Colledge at left guard, phenomenal Scott Wells at center, young stud Josh Sitton at right guard and fast-improving Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, the Packers allowed only seven sacks in the first four games.

Then Bulaga went down in the Week 3 game against Chicago with a knee sprain and missed two games. Clifton sustained a severe hamstring injury in the Week 5 game against Atlanta and will finally return to practice this week. Sitton suffered a knee sprain at Detroit in Week 12. He returned Sunday against Kansas City, only for Bulaga to go down again, as did first-round pick Derek Sherrod with a season-ending broken leg.

No wonder Rodgers has been sacked 36 times and the Packers are tied for the ninth-most sacks allowed in the league with 37.

In Clifton's place, Newhouse hasn't been a disaster but his play has been up and down like Wall Street. A week after dominating Detroit veteran Kyle VandenBosch, Newhouse got his lunch handed to him by the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul. Newhouse bounced back against Oakland standout Kamerion Wimbley, only to be at fault for two sacks against Kansas City's Tamba Hali. Returning to Lambeau Field will help Newhouse, who since settling in at left tackle has allowed four sacks in road games and two sacks at home.

Really, though, it's sink-or-swim with Newhouse for at least another week and perhaps much longer. With Clifton, Bulaga, Sherrod and Newhouse, offensive tackle was one of the Packers' unquestioned strengths. Only Newhouse will be in the lineup against Chicago's formidable front four. And while Bulaga shouldn't be out for too long, there's no guarantee that Clifton can make it back or perform at a high level.

That puts the Packers in a major pickle against the Bears, at least, and perhaps the playoff-starved and rules-be-damned Lions in the regular-season finale.

Lang, the only player on the field for every offensive snap this season, will have to move to right tackle. In his place will be Evan Dietrich-Smith. At this point, the only backups are an undrafted rookie, Ray Dominguez, and a player who hasn't put on a football helmet in two-and-a-half months, Clifton. All of which makes you wonder whether Mark Tauscher, given two weeks of practice, would be a short-term option at right tackle, since Lang could return to left guard and put Dietrich-Smith back on the bench. The very thought of Tauscher coming to the rescue shows you the state of the Packers' line, considering he hasn't been in a competitive situation since injuring his shoulder against Detroit on Oct. 3, 2010.

The Chiefs showed the rest of the league how to beat the Packers, though it's hardly a secret formula: Pressure Rodgers with just four players, preventing the presumptive NFL MVP from surveying the field and taking advantage of his dominant skill players.

The Bears can do that. So, too, can the Lions. With the 49ers closing the regular season at Seattle and Arizona, suddenly the Packers are not air-tight locks to earn homefield advantage. Not the way a struggling offensive line has now been torn to shreds by injuries that imperil a quarterback that is the difference between a 13-1 team and a 5-8 team.

"I do want to give them credit. They played a very good game," Philbin said of the Chiefs. "It's a good defensive football team, it's a well-coached team. I think if you play man-to-man pass defense and you cover a receiver and you beat a guy blocking one-on-one, it's probably a good scheme anywhere at anytime. I don't want to minimize what they did, but there were pictures in that game where there's plenty of guys open, and there's plenty of opportunities to make plays, and to their credit they made more than we did, and they deserved to win. But I don't know if there's any blueprint. Nor do I sit here and think that we have any blueprint that we're going to beat anybody either. It's about execution, blocking, throwing the ball accurately, catching the ball, doing things that consistently win football games."

If the Packers don't execute and block against Peppers and Co., their season could end on Christmas night — regardless of whether they win the game to clinch homefield.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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