Rodgers’ Bodyguards

With the offensive line protecting at an elite level, the Packers' passing game has been unleashed like never before, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. That's an obvious key considering Rodgers' injured calf. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY)

The Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line, with its three Pro Bowlers, might be considered the best in the NFL.

The Green Bay Packers’ offensive line, however, should take a back seat to no one.

Not only did the line of left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, center Corey Linsley, right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga fuel a powerhouse running game during the second half of the season, but they provided plenty of time for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to work his magic.

In fact, during the final eight games of the season, the Packers yielded nine sacks. Only Denver (eight) allowed fewer. That’s obviously a critical factor considering the uncertain health of Rodgers’ left calf going into Sunday’s playoff game against Dallas.

“We’ve been playing with better fundamentals and just finishing better,” Bulaga said. “We’re giving Aaron the time he needs to move around the pocket, whenever he wants to do that, and just staying on our guys. It comes down to fundamentals and finish. There’s no secret to pass blocking. There’s no special potion or anything like that. It’s just fundamentals, technique and attitude.”

The line has been so good that coach Mike McCarthy has been able to unleash Rodgers more than ever.

“We’ve really relied on our pass protection,” McCarthy said. “We’ve gone to a lot more five-man protection than we have in the past. It’s really a tribute to those five guys up front. I just think the continuity that we have on the offensive line is the best that we’ve ever had in my time here. I go back to the spring, I felt this group had the chance to be the best offensive line and that’s clearly held true in the regular season, but we want to be the best football team here in the playoffs.”

Speaking generally, pass protection is about numbers. If an offense can protect with only its five linemen, rather than keeping a back and/or tight end for added protection, it can get five players into the route, which gives the quarterback more options.

“I think the five-man blocking schemes have been not out of necessity, which we’ve done in the past,” Rodgers said. “We’ve done five-man blocking schemes out of necessity because we’ve needed five outlets. In this case, we’ve done it because they’ve been blocking so well. I think going to the scat protection, which is a five-man protection, has been directly related to them blocking so well and winning a lot of one-on-one matchups. In the past, Mike’s first year in ’06 (for example), we went to some seven-man protection stuff with a guy in the backfield when we had issues, and then we kind of graduated over the years to five-man protection schemes so the ball could come out quickly. This year, as opposed to those years, we’ve been doing five-man protection stuff because they’ve been blocking so well.”

The Packers allowed 21 sacks in the first eight games of the season. With continued health, the group has has jelled. Another key has been the steady improvement of Linsley (rookie), Bulaga (missed 23 consecutive games entering this season) and Bakhtiari (five sacks in first eight games, one sacks in final eight games, according to ProFootballFocus.com).

Green Bay’s offensive line should have a big advantage blocking the Cowboys’ defenders in the passing game on Sunday. Dallas ranked just 28th in the league with a sack rate of 5.02 percent this season. Among the teams the Packers have shut down during the second half of the season are the Bills (league-best 9.66 percent sacks), Eagles (sixth-best 8.32 percent) and Vikings (eighth-best 7.68 percent).

“We do a lot of things in protections, whether it’s something with the tight ends and then having them releasing or running backs that are chipping and going through the A gap or B gap and helping the guards,” Bulaga said. “Whatever it is, we’re getting guys out on their routes, which gives Aaron more options, which makes the threat of Jordy (Nelson) and Randall (Cobb) even more dangerous. When there’s more guys out on their routes, there’s more options and it spreads the defense out a little bit more and guys find their way open. (Plus) Aaron does a great job of extending plays. Once that time clock goes off in his head, he’s able to get out of the pocket and get guys open. When you can do that with five guys protecting and holding off the four- or five-man rush that the defense brings, it’s huge.”


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