After getting manhandled by the New York Giants' defensive line a week earlier in a 38-10 loss at the Meadowlands that was punctuated by five sacks, fans and media filled the airwaves and blogosphere, questioning coach Mike McCarthy's decision to move left guard T.J. Lang to right tackle for the injured Bryan Bulaga and insert Evan Dietrich-Smith at Lang's guard spot.
Wouldn't they be better served with Lang staying at his normal spot at guard and undrafted rookie Don Barclay stepping in at right tackle? Didn't the musical chairs along the offensive line actually weaken them at two spots instead of just one? McCarthy and his staff thought not. And given that they've watched every snap every lineman has taken all year, they should know.
So, in their division matchup against the Vikings on Sunday, Green Bay went with the same starting lineup again, looking for better execution from its offensive line, and as a result, a better outcome.
The latter happened, with Green Bay winning 23-14. But as it turned out, Barclay got his shot at right tackle, after all, when Lang went out with an ankle injury. Not only was Barclay not a liability, his rock-solid performance helped get Green Bay's running game jump-started and kept quarterback Aaron Rodgers – sacked just twice on the day – mostly upright against a defensive line that had 16.5 sacks coming into the contest.
"You gotta give Donnie a lot of credit," Rodgers said. "Don Barclay stepped in. He got his opportunity and made the most of it. I'm really proud of him. He's a good kid. He's really worked hard in training camp and put himself in position to not only make the team but to be a contributor. We put him out there on different personnel packages. Excited for his opportunity. He's going up against a tough rusher today in (defensive end) Brian (Robison) and he did a good job."
It's the kind of performance you hope you can turn in when thrust into a starting role. But until it happens, no one knows for sure. Barclay, who was starting at left tackle for West Virginia in the Orange Bowl just 11 months ago, came in at the end of the first half with Minnesota leading 14-10 on the strength of an Adrian Peterson 82-yard touchdown run.
"The first play, I maybe got like a little tunnel vision," Barclay said. "I was just ‘out there.' It happens to everyone. But, after that, I got comfortable.
"It was awesome. A couple plays might not have been the prettiest, but I thought I went out there and got the job done and I was just fighting my butt off. Every play I was out there scrappin'."
As expected, Barclay got some help early with chip blocks from backs and tight ends. Fullback John Kuhn was also in the rookie's ear with some calming advice and encouragement.
"I was just letting Donnie know that he didn't have to do it all himself and we were trying to slide to him and then, when we didn't slide to him, we were trying to give him some protection with the back just so he could get his feet wet a little," Kuhn said. "Then when he did (get his feet wet), we realized we could lean on him a little and he kind of got in a groove and I thought he played great today."
The Packers had 52 rushing yards at the half, less than of Peterson's 126, but they finished with 152 yards on the day – their second-best performance of the season. It still trailed Peterson's 210, but provided much-needed balance that the offense has lacked most of the year.
Green Bay had no hesitation running to the right side behind Barclay and right guard Josh Sitton, including on a first-and-10 play from the Vikings' 22-yard line, when James Starks burst around the right end for the team's first rushing touchdown in seven games. It put the Packers up 20-14 with just more than 2 minutes to go in the third quarter.
That was one of the "not so pretty plays" that Barclay referred to, but it turned out to be pretty effective. Tight end Ryan Taylor blocked down and Barclay pulled to his right to lead block. Though he missed intended target Erin Henderson, the Vikings' weakside linebacker had to go behind Barclay to avoid the block, which allowed Starks to break free down the sideline.
Green Bay's final points came on a 31-yard field goal at the end of an 18-play, 73-yard, 11 minute drive – the longest drive in the NFL this season. While Barclay had a holding call declined on the drive, he chipped in with a key block of Robison on Rodgers' 3-yard scamper on third-and-2, and gave his quarterback time to find Randall Cobb for 33 yards on a third-and-12 six plays later.
With the team uncertain about the extent of Lang's ankle injury – the initial indication is it wasn't serious -- Barclay's play gives it a degree of comfort and some flexibility going into the stretch run of the season.
Just two spots down from Barclay, 14-year veteran center Jeff Saturday made his 200th career start. He's seen players in this spot before, going from sideline to front line in the span of a play. It doesn't always end well. But he definitely liked what he saw from No. 67.
"When you first get in, you've got those nerves running," Saturday said. "It's one of those things you want to focus on and make sure you're not ‘the guy' (to make a mistake). Those nerves are there, but I thought he responded really well and showed up and I'm just proud of how he worked. He didn't back down, he didn't question himself. If he had a bad play, he dropped it and moved on, and that's what going out there and playing with guys, that's what it does -- it builds that confidence little by little."
That goes for Barclay's confidence, and the newfound confidence his team has in him.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.