Offensive Line Must Form Wall

After providing Aaron Rodgers excellent protection last week, the line will need a repeat against the Niners' star-studded defense on Sunday.

The offensive line knew there was a lot on their shoulders against Chicago.

It was Aaron Rodgers' first game back from a broken collarbone. While Rodgers was certain he was healthy, thanks to taking a tumble while shoveling his icy driveway, there was a bit of a fear of the unknown for the men charged with protecting Rodgers.

It's not as if the linemen tried harder, but there was a certain, unspoken ... something.

"I got that question this week," guard T.J. Lang said in the victorious Soldier Field locker room. "It's kind of a trick question because if I say yes, then that means I'm not blocking as hard as I should. It's just a higher level of urgency. Obviously, he's coming back from a pretty serious injury, so it's making sure you're not getting beat and letting a guy get a free shot on him. The urgency was definitely higher. With him being back there, I think the urgency was higher."

Rodgers was sacked three times and hit four times, according to the official stats. Time and again, the Bears attacked Rodgers. Time and again, they were turned back.

Long before the Bears sent seven rushers on a do-or-die blitz on Rodgers' game-winning touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, the Bears sent five rushers three times and six rushers on two other occasions on the opening series alone. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Bears blitzed on 17 of Rodgers' 43 dropbacks.

"Our guys did a good job," coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. "They challenged us. We saw more pressure on the first series than I think they've shown in eight weeks. They had very low pressure totals. Obviously, (Bears defensive coordinator) Mel Tucker called a different game than he's been calling, which I appreciate and respect. Everything was on the line and he came after us."

According to ProFootballFocus.com's "pass blocking efficiency" metric, the Packers' offensive line protected better than any line in the league in Week 17. It charged two of the sacks to Rodgers and blamed the line for only four hurries in 43 dropbacks.

Then again, the line has played well all season. On the ground, the Packers rank seventh in yards. Through the air, the Packers' line ranks fourth in PFF's "pass blocking efficiency." ,p> "It was one of the better ones (of the season)," offensive line coach James Campen said on Thursday. "You don't like the quarterback ever getting hit but I thought the guys did a very good job. They threw a lot of stunts and they pressured us more than they had in the past. They did a good job with that. Certainly, that's a function of the quarterback, it's a function of the running backs to make sure they're in tune with everything, too."

The line will need another big performance in Sunday's Wild Card game against San Francisco. The 49ers tallied 38 sacks, with their sack rate of 6.5 percent ranking just 21st. With Aldon Smith (8.5), Ahmad Brooks (8.5), Justin Smith (6.5) and NaVorro Bowman (5.0) each registering at least five sacks, the 49ers have tremendous balance. With a star-studded roster, Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn't have to blitz too often.

The key defender is Aldon Smith. Smith, who was limited to 11 games this season due to substance-abuse rehab after piling up 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons, is ProFootballFocus.com's third-ranked pass rusher among 3-4 outside linebackers. PFF had Smith for a total of 55 pressures. That's almost as many as Green Bay's Clay Matthews (32 in 11 games) and Nick Perry (25 in 11 games) combined.

In Week 1, Smith had 1.5 sacks and four hurries while primarily facing Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari. In the last 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus, Bakhtiari has allowed four sacks. Three of those came against Detroit on Thanksgiving. So, by and large, Bakhtiari has played winning football this season.

"I would think so," Campen said when asked if Bakhtiari's matured since that trial by fire. "Speaking for the O-line, you now have 16 games and a library of work and running similar plays and blocking different body types and those type of things. Through that experience, you're obviously going to be better for it and you can adjust to things a lot quicker. You can get in there when you're in a series and something happens and basically can coach yourself through something with a young player. You don't have to wait to come to the sideline when you're in a series to get something fixed. I know we're better than we were the first game."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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