Key matchup: Exploiting the banged-up tackles

The Packers’ offensive line hasn’t found much consistency or cohesion in some time, giving Everson Griffen and Brian Robison an opening to make game-changing plays.

Timing in the NFL is often everything. When the Minnesota Vikings caught the Kansas City Chiefs earlier in the season, they were reeling at 1-4. When the Vikings handed them their fifth loss of the season, it appeared the Chiefs’ season was done. Ten wins later, the Chiefs look nothing like the team that limped off the field at TCF Bank Stadium in October.

Much is the same with the Green Bay Packers, who are a battered and beaten team, especially on the offensive line, making the ongoing battles between offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga against Vikings defensive ends Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter this week’s key matchup.

Both Bakhtiari and Bulaga have been battling ankle injuries that have sidelined them over the last few weeks at different times, forcing backup Don Barclay into action. The tackles aren’t the only ones who have been fighting through injuries. All five of the Packers offensive linemen – the two tackles, guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang and center Corey Linsley – have all missed time down the stretch due to injuries and all five haven’t practiced together for a full week since late October.

There has been some question as to whether Bakhtiari will be able to play Sunday with his ankle injury and, even if he does, he will be far from 100 percent trying to keep Griffen out of the Green Bay backfield.

The results of the offensive line injuries have been obvious in the Packers offense. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has posted his three worst passer-rating numbers in the past five games, with the worst two in the last two – a 68.8 rating against Oakland and a 66.2 rating against Arizona.

Rodgers has thrown for more than 220 yards just once in the last six games and hasn’t thrown more than two touchdown passes in any of his last seven games. Things hit bottom last week, when Rodgers was sacked eight times by the Arizona Cardinals, who were able to do almost all of their damage with just rushing four and dropping seven players into coverage. If not for his mobility and being able to escape the pocket and throw away passes, the sack total could have been much higher.

The injuries along the offensive line haven’t just impacted Rodgers. It has also taken a toll on the running game. The Packers’ rushing offense, led by running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, hasn’t run for more than 75 yards in three of their last four games. It’s not that the Packers haven’t tried running the ball, it’s just that they’ve been consistently bottled up and forcibly made the Packers offense too one-dimensional.

The Vikings have been generating more of a pass rush in their recent surge. They have posted nine sacks in the last two games and battered both Jay Cutler and Eli Manning in the process, forcing them to get rid of the ball faster than they wanted to and the result has been four interceptions in the last two games.

Griffen leads the team with 8½ sacks, Robison has added five sacks and rookie Hunter has six in part-time duty. The majority of recent woes of the Packers offense can’t be pinned on Rodgers or Lacy. Both of them have been doing their jobs, but with an offensive line that is banged up and less than 100 percent across the board, you can bet that the Vikings are going to be dialing up blitzes if they have to, but, in an ideal scenario, they will dominate the game with the men in the trenches and come after Rodgers with bad intentions, making the battles between Griffen and Bakhtiari and Robison and Bulaga this week’s championship matchup to watch.  

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