Just New, or New and Improved?

The Packers' starting quintet makes its official debut tonight, and thus far, the results are encouraging. Will this group perform better than last year, when the Packers ranked 18th in yards per rush and 19th in sacks allowed?

The pressing question about the Packers' offensive line has been settled. The important question, however, won't be answered for several weeks.

Coach Mike McCarthy settled on his line this week, and that group makes its debut as the official starting quintet tonight at Arizona. But will that line be new and improved or just new?

"I feel like they're the best offensive line we've had in the five years that I've been here," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

His safety depends on him being right in his assessment. Last year's line was a disappointment, and they've moved on this year by replacing longtime staples Mark Tauscher and Scott Wells. Combined, they started 177 games. They're being replaced by two players with a combined two starts.

However you slice it, it's a group that needs to perform better. Rodgers absorbed 34 sacks last season — the most allowed by the team since 2000 — and the running game's average rush of 4.13 yards was good for only 18th the NFL.

The early returns are promising. In two preseason games, Rodgers hasn't been touched and the top three backs — Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn — are averaging 4.53 yards per carry. In the first half last week, when the No. 1 line played the entire 30 minutes against a Buffalo team that was playing its third preseason game, the Packers averaged 4.47 yards per attempt.

"I'm real excited about what we've got and what we bring to the table as an O-line," new right tackle Allen Barbre said. "That's real exciting to see what we can do and I'm looking forward to the season. I think we'll have a great season. If we don't lose focus, we can be something special."

The path to improvement starts at left tackle, where veteran Chad Clifton is back for his 10th season. Offseason surgeries to both knees and both shoulders seem to have reinvigorated Clifton. Last year during the season, Clifton sometimes only practiced on Fridays to keep his knees feeling relatively fresh for Sundays. This year, his knees are feeling better, and that should make Clifton sharper and better able to handle the challenges that go with the position.

"I think it's important for the offense that he performs at a high level that we're all accustomed to seeing," offensive line coach James Campen said this week. "I know Chad has said he expects himself to get back to the form and exceed it. I don't believe his goal is to just get back to '07 (when he reached his first Pro Bowl). His goal is to be better than '07."

At left guard is Daryn Colledge. Haven't heard much about Colledge this summer? No you haven't, and anonymity is the best asset for a guard. There's a feeling the fourth-year pro from North Pole, Alaska, is ready to move up to among the better guards in the NFL.

At center, Jason Spitz moves over from right guard to supplant Wells. Spitz started three games at center and played the bulk of two others last season. In those five games, the Packers averaged 140.4 rushing yards per game. In the other 11, the Packers rushed for 100.1 yards per game.

"I'm getting older and getting the game down and things are slowing down for me," Spitz said of moving to center after starting 29 games at right guard in his first three seasons. "I've had a lot of work with Campy and (offensive line assistant Jerry Fontenot) the last couple of years with technique and stuff like that. It's too early to say whether it's my best position or not, but I think I've done a fair job at it and I'm going to continue to work."

Those three spots — an aging left tackle, an average left guard and a new face at center — are the Packers' version of sure things this year. At right guard is Josh Sitton, who started two games last season as a rookie. Sitton's a grizzled veteran compared to Barbre, who had zero starts in his first two seasons.

That would seem to be cause for worry, especially with the Bears on the schedule in Week 1 and Minnesota in Week 4. Rodgers, however, says he's got confidence in Sitton and Barbre.

"I like the two guys we've got there," Rodgers said. "I think Josh has done a great job since he's been here. He would have had a good chance of starting the season last year but he got injured in the Denver game (last year's preseason). He's done some good things for us, a big, strong guy. Allen Barbre has been here for a few years now and been waiting for an opportunity. He's worked at left guard, left tackle and now he's at right tackle. He's maybe the most athletic lineman that we have."

Sitton and Barbre are starters but they don't have a long leash. With Wells having a strong camp, McCarthy could easily move Spitz back to right guard to replace Sitton. And the Packers remain high on right tackle Breno Giacomini.

"There's always somebody trying to take your spot. That's the business, that's the NFL," Barbre said.


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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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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