A week after leaving a game with a knee injury, right guard T.J. Lang will be back in the starting lineup for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
Three weeks after knee surgery, right tackle Bryan Bulaga was back in the starting lineup for the Packers last week.
While clearly not playing up to his standard because of a knee injury, David Bakhtiari was at his customary spot at left tackle to start the season.
Lang (ankle) and left guard Josh Sitton (toe) powered through painful injuries to start every game last season.
You want tough guys? There aren’t many tougher guys, mentally or physically, than the starting five on the Packers’ offensive line.
“They don’t like missing time,” said offensive line coach James Campen, who was the Packers’ starting center for three seasons in the early 1990s. “They don’t like missing time in practice or games or anything of that nature. That started way before my time because it’s just the makeup of an offensive linemen. You just keep going and going and hopefully thing work out. Hey, it’s one of those things. You’re a lineman. You don’t get your name in the paper very often. If you do, most of the time it’s for something that was poorly done. It’s a personal pride, it’s a unit, prideful thing to go out there and play.”
“Your linemen, that’s the big brother program,” coach Mike McCarthy said on Friday. “Just the fact that these guys line up and not only play every week, the way they practice. I think it speaks volumes to each individual. You have to look at the camaraderie, the accountability they have to one another. It’s no secret: The best lines in football are the ones that play every week together. Our guys are very conscientious of that. They don’t like missing practice time, let alone missing games.”
Why? “Pride” is the word used universally.
“I think a lot of pride goes into it,” Lang said. “We work our butts off to go out there and be successful on Sunday. We hold each other accountable. It’s something that offensive linemen, you don’t really talk about it but it’s in everybody’s blood. We understand that everyone’s hurting. I understand that Bryan’s knee’s probably not feeling great, Dave’s knee’s been hurting, Josh’s foot’s still hurting. We all understand that everybody’s going through some pain. When you watch those guys go out there and play through it, obviously, it makes the next guy want to do the same. It’s just our mold. It’s something we feel like we have some injuries that are considered minor, we’re not going to let that stop us from getting out there and doing our job on Sundays. It’s just part of your character of being an offensive lineman.”
Lang’s definition of a “minor” injury might not be shared by the medical community. That’s the linemen mentality.
“When I blew my elbow out a couple years back,” Lang said, “they were saying, ‘If you were a player at any other position, you’d probably need five to six weeks. Here’s a brace.’ You just find a way to play around some things.”
Bulaga said “everyone’s dealing with a little something” during the season. Bulaga’s no different — so long as a “little something” includes knee surgery.
“It all part of the game. We all signed up for it. We know the risks of it,” Bulaga said. “Things happen, you get nicked up, you take care of it, you do your best to get back on the field. When you’re ready to go, you go. I don’t think it has anything to do with if a guy has to get a surgery or anything like that. When you’re ready to play, you go out there and do it and you’re expected to perform at just as high of a level as you were expected to perform before that injury happened. That’s the way we look at it. No matter what, if you’re out there, you’re expected to perform at a high level.”
Bakhtiari falls into the no-excuses category after sitting out the final three preseason games with a knee injury. In 16 games last season, he allowed a total of 29 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. In the first four games of this season, he allowed 15 pressures. Finally beyond that injury, he played his best game of the season last week, with center Corey Linsley taking the blame for the sack Bakhtiari allowed.
“Just ignore it,” Bakhtiari said of playing hurt. “No excuses because I’m not going to tell you guys if I’m hurt or not, and no one’s going to give a (crap) if you’re hurt or not. All you have to care about is if you play well, and that’s all I care about. So, regardless if I feel great or I don’t, I’m just going to go out there and ignore it, compete.”
Ignoring it is the challenge. With every step of every day, the injured toes and knees are imploring the brains to sit down and take a week or three off. The human body wasn’t constructed to play football, let alone to play football with strained muscles and torn ligaments. And yet, they do it. Week after week after week, the linemen put their personal welfares on the line for pride and camaraderie and the love for the game.
“It’s tough. It’s a grind. I’m not sure how,” Sitton said. “Sometimes, you go and look at what we do and you wonder, ‘How in the hell do we do this? Why?’ You’ve just got to be mentally tough. It’s funny, when I have an injury, it might not hurt all week, but come game time, my toe will just start randomly hurting or my back and I’m like, ‘Where did this come from?’ I think it’s my brain’s way of trying to tell my body that you’ve got to get ready for a game. I don’t know, it’s weird.”
For as accomplished as the Packers’ line has become — it’s one of the top units in football — there’s a bit of a fear factor. Bakhtiari, Lang and Sitton are fourth-round picks. Linsley, who’s either incredibly durable or impervious to pain, was a fifth-round pick. For all the accolades, their having to fight for a roster spot or their place in the starting lineup isn’t far from their minds when they’re dealing with injuries. They don’t want to be the football version of Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig.
“You don’t want to see anybody else in your spot,” Sitton said. “That’s how it is. You never take your job for granted. You always stay humble and know that they’re always trying to replace you here and everywhere. That’s just how this business goes. When you’re not out there, you think about that. ... No matter what, they’re always trying to get younger and cheaper. That’s how this business works.”
Even for Sitton and Lang, who might form the best guard duo in the NFL and are respected veteran leaders? Surely, they wouldn’t lose their spot if they missed a game or two. Right?
“I’ve never even once felt comfortable as being the guy,” Lang said. “I’ve always felt like there’s somebody else ready to come in and replace me at any time. That gives you that motivation each year – really every day – to bust your ass and prove you belong. It’s something that you have to show your teammates. You have to show that you’ve really earned your spot. Once you’re a starter, that’s not your spot for eternity. There’s guys that are always crawling up my nose to get some playing time. I wouldn’t say fear but we’re definitely very aware that you need to prove your worth every single day.”
RIVERS PROVIDES FIRST TRUE TEST
The Packers’ defense enters this week’s games ranked second in opponent passer rating, second in interception percentage and fourth in passing yards per game and per attempt.
That’s great. But none of those opponents were quarterbacked by Philip Rivers.
Of the quarterbacks the Packers have faced, Russell Wilson has the highest passer rating (No. 11 in the NFL), Alex Smith has thrown for the most yards (No. 9) and Wilson, Nick Foles and Jay Cutler have thrown the most touchdown passes (tied for No. 18).
Rivers, meanwhile, is marching up the NFL record books. In last week’s loss to Pittsburgh, he moved into 12th place for career touchdown passes (262) and 17th place for career passing yards (38,239). This season, his 1,613 passing yards are almost 100 more than any other quarterback. His passer rating of 103.9 has pushed his career mark up to 96.0 — No. 6 in NFL history.
“He’s your classic veteran quarterback — in the Peyton Manning mold, the Aaron Rodgers mold — that’s going to call a lot of the game at the line of scrimmage based off of your looks,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “There’s a reason why they’re No. 3 in the league in offense. They’re very efficient. He’s going to get them in and out of plays — out of plays they don’t want to be in and into plays they want to be in.”
Green Bay’s pass defense has been excellent. While that hasn’t come against any of the game’s elite quarterback, it’s worth noting that the Packers held those quarterbacks to a passer rating lower than their full-season mark. That perhaps shows that the Packers’ production hasn’t been fool’s gold.
In a league in which champions become champions by stopping championship-caliber quarterbacks, this will be a strong test for a secondary that’s had to lean more than expected on rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins because of Morgan Burnett’s continued absence. It’s not, however, a final exam.
“I feel good about how we’ve played,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “We haven’t faced a quarterback with this type of anticipation, this type of grit. He’s a guy that can get hit and still keep his eyes down the field. The more you study him, the more respect the way he plays. This is going to be a real challenge. If we play poorly, I’m not going to say, ‘We weren’t ready.’ If we play really good, I’m not going to say, ‘We really answered the test.’ No, it’s a challenge that we have to step to, then we’ll move onto Denver with Peyton (Manning), Carolina with Cam (Newton). There’s a bunch of challenges. Hopefully we’re ready for this one but I’m not, good or bad, going to say we are good or bad off of just one game. I’m going to let our body of work speak for itself."
What have the Packers been doing well against the pass? Just about everything. The Packers rank second in sacks and second in sack percentage and are tied for second with eight interceptions.
“We’re doing a good job of competing,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “When the ball has been thrown, I don’t think we’ve given up many completions. I think we’re second or third in completion percentage. (They’re second at 53.1 percent.) That’s what we’re doing on the back end. What’s the front been able to do? Getting a lot of pressure and disrupting the quarterback and rattling the quarterback a little bit. It starts up front. We’ve been controlling the front and playing fast on the back end.”
NUMBERS DON’T TELL MASTHAY’S STORY
Entering this week’s games, Packers punter Tim Masthay ranks 23rd in average and 23rd in net average.
Masthay’s job, however, isn’t in jeopardy. Far from it. The Packers couldn’t be happier with how he’s bounced back from a disappointing 2014 and a slump in training camp this summer.
That’s because the Packers are allowing just 5.2 yards per punt return — the fourth-best rate in the league — even while facing Seattle’s Tyler Lockett (one touchdown), Kansas City’s De’Anthony Thomas (one touchdown last year), San Francisco’s Jarryd Hayne and St. Louis’ Tavon Austin (one touchdown). Any list of the top returners in football will include those four players.
“I don’t pay much attention to statistics but that’s a good stat that you just mentioned,” Masthay said.
Special teams coordinator Ron Zook said Masthay has been sacrificing his own numbers for the good of the team. Masthay’s focus hasn’t been on how far to kick the ball — his 43.9-yard average is 2.5 yards less than the league average — but on where to kick the ball.
“I’ve often been trying to kick the ball really wide, which you’re sacrificing distance when you do that,” he said. “There’s been a couple game situations where the primary importance has been for there to be no return, so hit the ball short and out of bounds or something along those lines in order to make sure that got accomplished.”
By putting the ball at the sideline, Masthay has made life easy for the coverage units, since the sideline represents an unblockable, unshakable 12th defender. Kicking the ball to the sideline is easier said than done, however. For instance, if he’s kicking the ball to the left, if the ball goes too far left, the ball will go out of bounds too soon and result in a minimal change in field position. Don’t kick the ball far enough to the left, and the returner has a lot of real estate to work with.
“Tim’s doing a great job with it, he really is,” Zook said. “It’s something that a lot of guys don’t do. Any time you give one of those guys in the National Football League the ability to have 52 yards of field, it makes it hard. As we get into the seasonal change, it’s going to be even harder for us because they’re not always going to be where you want them. That’s the way it is with this weather and kicking in Lambeau. We need to be prepared and ready to cover them.”
All of which makes this a gratifying start to the season. After some protection breakdowns last season, Masthay fell into a funk that he couldn’t shake. He easily beat out Cody Mandell in training camp, then promptly got into another rut. He feels like an asset again — a much different feeling compared to last season, when he felt like he had let the team down.
“I’m very happy that I’ve been as in control of the ball as I have been,” he said. “I’ve been placing the ball pretty much exactly where I’ve wanted to on almost every punt. I’ve been very pleased with the placement and then we’ve been protecting and covering well. It’s good to feel like our punt team has been contributing to these wins.”
INSIDE THE CHARGERS
— No running backs were drafted in the first round of the 2013 and 2014 drafts. That changed in the 2015 draft, with Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon vying to be the first back off the board.
That honor went to Gurley, who went No. 10 to St. Louis. Gordon fell to San Diego at No. 15. The Packers faced Gurley last week. On Sunday, Gordon — the Wisconsin native and University of Wisconsin legend — is on the docket.
“I'm definitely in competition with Gurley, but I'm in competition with all the running backs,” Gordon said in a conference call. “I'm a competitor, that's just who I am. It's been a learning curve for me. I've learned to not focus so much on their success. Just worry about my success and the team's success. I can't worry about how many Gurley is running for because that can affect your game some. You're really out there trying to force plays now because you're in such a big competition with him and everyone else. So, I just try be myself. I try to compete with myself.”
Gordon has rushed for 270 yards with zero touchdowns. He has a long run of 27 yards and is averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Compare that to the ridiculous production at Wisconsin. As a senior, he led the nation with 2,587 yards, tied for the lead with 32 touchdowns and led the way with 21 carries of at least 30 yards. Gordon owns the all-time FBS record with 7.79 yards per carry. During a record-setting 408-yard performance vs. Nebraska, he had seven carries of at least 20 yards. He’s got just two with the Chargers.
“The hardest part for me adjusting to this level is, in college you had time to set up a defender one-on-one and were able to make him miss. Now, you don't have that much time,” Gordon said. “Instead of setting up one guy, you've got to be able to set up two. Because you try to set up one guy to make him miss and there's another guy trailing him that's right there. You've got to work out in your head in a matter of seconds how you're going to make two guys miss and get through there for the extra yardage.”
Still, no one’s disappointed. He caught seven passes last week against Pittsburgh after grabbing just 22 in four seasons for the Badgers. According to Pro Football Focus, he entered this week’s games tied for second with 25 missed tackles (rushing and receiving).
“He’s only going to get better as a player as time goes on,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said during his conference call. “Like all young players, there’s certain things you learn. Coming in, playing with new teammates, new systems and things like that it’s different for you, there’s a lot to learn. Any time you’re a running back, everyone wants to look at you and see how many yards per attempt and the number of carries you’re getting, but I think the big thing is it’s all 11 guys doing their job better so he could be more successful. I think he’s a very talented player. There’s a reason why we brought him here and I think he can do it all for us. He’s getting better every day.”
— Chargers tight end Antonio Gates returned from a four-game suspension last week and immediately made some history. With two touchdowns against Pittsburgh, he jumped past Don Hutson (99 career touchdowns), Steve Largent (100) and Tim Brown (100) and into seventh place all-time with 101 career touchdown receptions.
Of those, 74 have come from Rivers. That’s the most quarterback-to-tight end touchdown connections in NFL history. Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski is merely 17 behind.
Their incredible chemistry will be a big test for a Packers defense that has covered tight ends well this season.
“It's like we talk about,” McCoy said. “Players playing together, the amount of time they've spent together, the number of reps they've taken together, knowing the body language and certain coverages, the way Antonio's going to lean on certain guys. He understands certain routes to where Philip wants to put the ball, what is the coverage on the back end. A big thing also is understanding pressure packages, how certain teams play certain things. When you have two guys that work as hard as they do, it doesn't surprise you at all the success they had even after being away from one another for the past month. Coming in and seeing them play the other night, it's why they're two of the best in the business. They're true professionals."
Only Tony Gonzalez (111) has more career touchdowns by a tight end. And with three receptions on Sunday, he’ll become the 32nd player in NFL history with 800 career catches.
— Gates isn’t a one-man band for Rivers, though. Receiver Keenan Allen, the first-round pick in 2013, has 39 catches for 444 yards and three touchdowns. Whitt called him “elite.” Allen is on pace to catch 125 passes. If that holds up, it would be the third-most in NFL history behind Marvin Harrison’s 143 with the Colts in 2002 and Antonio Brown’s 129 with the Steelers last season. The other starting receiver is 6-foot-5 Malcom Floyd. Among receivers with 300 career receptions, he ranks second with a 17.2-yard average.
“Allen can run every route. He can run every route. He’s a big guy — 6-2 — and can run,” Hayward said. “Floyd, he’s the same way. They’ve got some good receivers.”
— The Chargers are in danger of being blown out in the AFC West. They’re 2-3, already three games behind the undefeated Broncos. They are coming off a brutal Monday night loss at home to Pittsburgh. When the Chargers took a 20-17 lead late in regulation, they held advantages of 406-269 in yards and a 24-8 in first downs. Then they coughed it up against backup quarterback Michael Vick.
“You have to have a short memory,” McCoy said. “You go from week to week and every loss is tough. But we’ve moved on, we’ve put it behind us and we’ve got to improve this week playing against a very good football team, obviously. You’ve got to move on. You have to have a short memory in this business.”
San Diego is a team that is stuck in a rut. From 2010 through 2014, the Chargers have finished 9-7, 8-8, 7-9, 9-7 and 9-7. They’ve qualified for the playoffs just once during that span. With another season in danger of slipping away, Rivers said there’s no time for a pity party.
“I just think the message for all of us is just that there's no time (for), 'Poor us. Gosh, a play here, a play there, we should’ve won that game. Look how close it was,’” Rivers told reporters in San Diego. “There's no time for that because the place we're going, they will run us out of the stadium if we don’t go there ready to play. You're going into an undefeated team that doesn't hardly ever lose at home. We know we got our hands full, so we’ve got to go in ready to roll.”
— Before McCoy was coaching the likes of Rivers and Peyton Manning, he was a humble practice-squad quarterback for the Packers in 1995.
“You go back all the way to the days I was a little kid, the coaches I've been around. You're a product of those people you've been around. Mike Holmgren, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid — the list goes on of everybody who was there in '95,” McCoy, an undrafted free agent out of Utah, said. “You learn so much. You take a little bit from everybody — the tradition and history there of things. You learn about the NFL and the game. That was the one place I stayed the longest. But being around great coaches, they influence you a certain way with how you want to do certain things and how they handle the football team.”
— When Rivers has a passer rating of at least 120, the Chargers are 35-3. He’s really flourished under McCoy. In their two-plus seasons together, Rivers ranks second in the NFL in completion percentage (68.4), third in touchdowns (73) and fourth in passer rating (100.1).
Also, Rivers has authored 21 fourth-quarter comeback victories, including the season-opening victory over Detroit, when the Chargers trailed 21-20 before winning 33-28. Three of those comebacks came on the road last year and he’s got a total of eight since the start of the 2013 season.
“Nothing really rattles him,” Hayward said. “It’s just so hard to rattle a vet like that. He just thrives on competition. You can see that. You can see the competitive nature in him. He never gives up so the game is never over for him.”
— Rivers is hitting a big milestone this week, and it has nothing to do with passing yards or touchdowns. Rivers will be making his 150th consecutive start. Among quarterbacks, Brett Favre obviously holds the record with 297 consecutive starts. That’s followed by Peyton Manning (208). Eli Manning (172), Rivers and Joe Flacco (117) hold the next three spots and all three streaks are active.
— Green Bay leads the series 9-1. Shootouts have been the name of the game.
In 2011, the Packers won 45-38 at San Diego to improve to 8-0. Rivers threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns but was intercepted three times. Two of those interceptions, by Charlie Peprah and Tramon Williams, were returned for touchdowns. Rodgers was 21-of-26 for 247 yards and four touchdowns.
In San Diego’s lone win, at Lambeau Field in 1984, Dan Fouts went 31-of-50 for 376 yards and three touchdowns, with Kellen Winslow setting a team record with his 15 grabs (for 157 yards). Green Bay’s Lynn Dickey threw for 384 yards and three touchdowns but was intercepted twice.
In San Diego’s last visit to Lambeau Field, in 2007, Brett Favre tied Dan Marino’s all-time record with 420 career touchdown passes.
NUMBERS WORTH NOTING
— Through five weeks, the cumulative NFL passer rating is 90.6. Last year at this point, it was 90.7 en route to a full-season record of 88.9. Rodgers and Rivers are holding up their end of the bargain. Rodgers’ rating of 117.4 ranks second and Rivers’ 103.9 ranks fifth.
The key to the league-wide success is accuracy. Quarterbacks have completed 64.3 percent of their passes, ahead of the five-week record of 63.7 percent set last season. Three if the five most-accurate seasons have come in the past three seasons, with 62.6 percent in 2014 and 61.2 percent in 2013 holding the top two spots.
Passer rating is a big deal. New England’s Tom Brady (121.5), Green Bay’s Rodgers and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton (115.6) are a combined 14-0. Carson Palmer (114.0) has Arizona off to a 4-1 start. Rivers is the lone outlier among the top five quarterbacks.
— Including the 14-0 lead against the Rams last week, the Packers have outscored their opponents 134-24 at home in the first quarter since the start of the 2014 season. Home or away, Green Bay owns a plus-46 scoring differential in the first quarter this season. That’s as much as the next two teams (Cincinnati, plus-29; New England, plus-17) combined.
— Even with two interceptions last week, Rodgers owns the NFL’s best career interception percentage by a huge margin. Rodgers’ career rate is 1.63 percent. Second-place Brady’s career rate is 1.95 percent. For perspective, Rodgers could throw an interception on his next 12 passes and still hold the top spot.
“Whether it’s an audible because he sees a certain pressure or he has the ability to make plays with his feet and extend the play, a cadence that he uses to his advantage, there’s a reason why they’ve had the success they’ve had,” McCoy said. “He’s one of the great players in the league and that’s what’s so special about the NFL is when you have great players like that. You love to watch film of them and the way he plays and his approach to every game. You really see a guy out there who loves playing the game.”
— How rare was Green Bay’s offensive performance last week? Its 14 first downs were its fewest in a home game since the 2009 season opener.
“(Rodgers) expects to be the best, and when he’s not, it makes him mad,” quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said. “And that’s what makes him great — that competitive nature.”
— Before the season, Whitt said Sam Shields had the potential to be discussed among the top four or five cornerbacks in the league.
Over the past four games, Shields has played to that level.
According to Whitt, Shields gave up six completions in the Week 1 game against Chicago. In the next four games, he’s given up four completions and broken up four passes.
“He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do,” Whitt said. “He’s challenged, he’s put himself on an island and has gotten his hands on as many balls since Chicago — either interception or pass breakup — as he’s given up completions, which is impressive.”
With Tramon Williams’ departure in free agency, the Packers needed Shields to ascend into the No. 1 role. He’s done that, though it’s fair to point out that the Packers haven’t faced any elite receivers . Still, you can only cover who’s put in front of you. Whitt pointed to a play against the Rams’ Brian Quick as a sign of Shields playing and acting like an elite corner.
“He’s told the safety, ‘Hey, I got him, you can go over there,’” Whitt said. “That ball he broke up in the end zone, we were supposed to be in two-man and he sent the safety to the front side and covered it by himself. Things like that are huge because it helps the whole defense when he can do those type of things and we can help elsewhere. Coverage-wise, he’s doing what we want him to do, what we need him to do.”
Not only that, but Shields has helped fill the leadership void left by Williams. Top picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins have played more than expected and look like quality players.
“I’m taking full advantage of it — of helping anybody, especially the young guys like Q and Randall, who have come in and helped us out on defense,” Shields said. “I’m doing as much as I can to be that upperclassman that I am and get in that role that I am.”
— Third down is of utmost importance. Don’t take our word for it.
“For all you stat nuts, that’s something you should pay more attention to. Not that I know what the hell I’m talking about but I pay attention to it,” McCarthy said.
And so shall we.
San Diego has the NFL’s sixth-ranked third-down defense, with opponents converting just 33.9 percent of the time. Green Bay’s offense historically has been a third-down juggernaut. The Packers ranked third at 47.2 percent last season and are one of only two teams to rank in the top 10 in that category in each of the past eight seasons. This year, however, Green Bay is No. 18 at 38.3 percent.
“It’s Week (6). You’ve got five weeks of information,” McCarthy said. “I think that doesn’t give you a clear picture. I like the way we’re built for third down. Nothing that I’m concerned about.”
— On the other side of the ball, Green Bay’s third-down defense has been dominant since Week 1. Chicago converted 11-of-17 (64.7 percent) in the opener. In the past four weeks, opponents have moved the chains on 14-of-50 third downs — just 28.0 percent.
“They’ve had this defensive system in place now for some time,” Rivers said. “They don’t necessarily have the same guys they’ve had for a long time. They’ve brought in different pieces. But it’s a defense you can tell knows what they’re doing. There’s very few guys running open and free [against them]. There’s nothing easy. They make you earn everything. It’s a good defense and in combination with that offense is a well-rounded team.”
— If the Packers win, McCarthy will earn regular-season victory No. 100 in his Packers and NFL career. We have more on that in the video with this story.
THE LAST WORD GOES TO ....
Sam Barrington, the injured linebacker: “It makes me feel good. Even though I’m not playing, it just feels good to be a part of a winning team. It’s hard to win in the NFL. To see these guys playing the way they’re out there playing, we have some ways to go but we’re just flat-out playing faster than everybody. To see that, I love it and I just want to be here and continue to give these guys support.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.