The Green Bay Packers' offensive line is coming off its finest game of the season, though perhaps at a huge cost if right tackle Bryan Bulaga is out for an extended period with an injured hip.
During their four-game winning streak, they've given up eight sacks: three vs. St. Louis, two apiece vs. Houston and Jacksonville and one vs. Arizona. The Cardinals are second in sacks, the Texans are tied for third and the Rams are tied for 12th. In the first five games, Green Bay allowed eight sacks at Seattle and five against Indianapolis and Chicago.
Over the long haul, the line has been a disappointment. Boosted by Jeff Saturday's 206 career starts, it is the sixth-most experienced unit in the league with 337 starts, yet Green Bay is 27th in rushing average (3.8) and 31st in sacks (29). Until last week, the Packers had averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry in just one of their first eight games.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Green Bay's lack of success running to the right in critical situations. While this doesn't all fall on guard Josh Sitton and Bulaga, Green Bay ranks 26th with a conversion rate off 43 percent on "power" runs to the right – defined by the league as third- and fourth-and-1 and -2 and all runs from the opponent's 1- and 2-yard line.
The highlight has been the vastly improved play of left tackle Marshall Newhouse. He's played so well that last year's first-round pick, Derek Sherrod, might be a man without a position -- not just this year but looking forward.
-- LT Marshall Newhouse: The million-dollar question entering training camp was whether Newhouse would develop into at least a serviceable left tackle with the entire offseason, camp and preseason to work at the position – advantages he didn't enjoy entering last season, when he was thrust into veteran Chad Clifton's spot. The answer is a definitive "yes." After ranking 57th out of 58 offensive tackles in pass blocking last season, Newhouse is 14th out of 59 this season according to ProFootballFocus.com. The next question is whether he can become more of a finisher as a run blocker. Grade: B-minus.
-- LG T.J. Lang: Lang hasn't been nearly as good as this year, and part of that is the elbow and wrist problem that has him wearing a brace on his left arm. He's allowed five sacks and 14 total pressures after yielding two sacks and 13 total pressures all of last season. He played his best game last week, when he moved seamlessly to right tackle. Grade: B-minus.
-- C Jeff Saturday: Saturday is not Scott Wells, not that anyone expected him to be. Last season, Wells was PFF's fourth-ranked center with two sacks and nine total pressures allowed. This year, Saturday is 31st with three sacks and seven total pressures allowed. Wells held his own in the run game, at worst. Whether it's age or acclimation to the Packers' scheme and blocking techniques, Saturday has had a difficult time in the run game. The mental side of the game, however, is easy to overlook but hard to overstate. He was on his game against St. Louis with a couple of quick snaps when Rams defenders jumped offside, resulting in a 52-yard completion to Jordy Nelson and a clinching 38-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Grade: C-minus.
-- RG Josh Sitton: Sitton has been his typical self as one of the best all-around guards in the game. He's allowed one sack this season after two in 2011 and none in 2010. He played two of his best games against two of the best pass-rushing teams in the league, Houston and Arizona, when he regularly faced and beat the Texans' J.J. Watt and Cardinals' Darnell Dockett. Grade: B.
-- RT Bryan Bulaga: Big things were expected of Bulaga. With the exception of a horrendous first half at Seattle, Bulaga had come close to delivering until sustaining a hip injury in the first half against Arizona. Based on PFF's numbers, Bulaga allowed two sacks, one quarterback hit and eight additional hurries against Seattle. In the six games since then, he allowed one sack, one hit and eight hurries. Grade: B-minus.
-- G/C Evan Dietrich-Smith: The unit's "sixth man," Dietrich-Smith was used as an extra blocker against Houston and Jacksonville before being thrust into action at left guard against Arizona when Lang replaced Bulaga. Dietrich-Smith was excellent in relief. Assuming he winds up replacing Bulaga for a game or two or much more, this will be his shot to show that he is the center of the future. Grade: C-minus.
-- G/T Don Barclay: The undrafted rookie from West Virginia made the roster on the strength of a strong second half of training camp. He hasn't played from scrimmage but has been a staple of the kickoff-return and place-kick protection units. He was a lead blocker on Tom Crabtree's touchdown on a fake field goal against Chicago. Grade: D.
-- G Greg Van Roten: Van Roten, an undrafted free agent from Penn who was signed on June 25, was one of the surprises of training camp, especially in pass protection. He has not played since being promoted from the practice squad on Oct. 13 to take Cedric Benson's place on the roster. Grade: Incomplete
Number to note
0: Number of snaps missed by the entire Packers offensive line until Bulaga's sustained a hip injury against Arizona.
Position coach James Campen, on the performance against Arizona: Players have a lot of pride and they get tired of hearing it, and certainly get tired of hearing it from me. Really, they took it upon themselves to be more physical in their one-on-one individual matchups. I think when you challenge people, good things happen. We put a good step forward correcting those things."
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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.