Coming into this season, there were two areas that topped my list of improvements the Packers HAD to make; Aggressiveness on defense and protecting Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers aided their defense by drafting some players that play fast, tough and aggressive. They let as few players go who they felt just could no longer do so. They reshaped their defensive mentality by bringing back sparkplug Johnny Jolly and encouraging some current players to play more aggressively and set the tone for the rest of the defense (see Clay Matthews vs. Colin Kaepernick).
As I watched the defense over the course of the preseason, I could see it building, game to game. So much so that I felt really good that the defense would be at least in the upper half of teams this season, if not top 12. An 11th hour injury to Morgan Burnett, the QB of the defensive secondary, forced several players into roles they had not really practiced for that week. The secondary was victimized against the 49ers, but I still felt good about what this defense would become.
With a full week to practice their new roles, the secondary bounced back nicely against the Redskins, before the whole defense took the second half off. When Burnett and Hayward return, the Packers defense will take a quantum leap forward. But I digress – let’s get back on course to the real topic of this post, the offensive line.
As a former offensive lineman in my not so stellar HS football career, I always keep a close eye on the big uglies up front. Unlike the defense, I did not get any warm fuzzies from what I saw in preseason from the offensive line. I did a previous film study on the Packers Rams preseason game, focusing on some pretty poor run blocking I observed.
Two games into the season, my biggest fear about the offensive line has once again reared it’s ugly head. In two games the Packers have allowed 6 sacks of the deservedly highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. At that rate, they’ll be right back in the same area of the 51 sacks they allowed last season. Absolutely unacceptable.
Of course, the Packers have some excuses. They decided to take a bold step by moving their two best OL over to Aaron Rodgers’ blind side. Their best laid plans went awry as Bulaga was lost for the season and Derrick Sherrod, their other recent year first-round draft pick tackle, still can’t get back on the field.
So the excuses are there; the Packers offensive line has two starters in new positions a fourth round rookie and two players with only a handful of NFL starts between them. THIS is the offensive line that is being counted on to protect Aaron Rodgers.
It’s this offensive line that gave up four sacks this past week against the Redskins. Lets take a look at each one and see where things broke down.
Sack #1: First & goal: Nothing much to say here except wow, Rayn Kerrigan. He only needs one arm to bull rush Don Barclay and keep him away from his body all at the same time. When Kerrigan was in the draft, I downgraded him as a 3-4 OLB because I didn’t feel he could play in coverage, which Dom Capers wants from his OLBs. I suggested he go to a 4-3 team where he could play DE full time and do what he does best. He has flourished in the Redskin’s 3-4 because while technically a LB, he is used more like a DE and dropping in coverage is not something he’s asked to do very much. This was one of the most impressive sacks I’ve seen in awhile.
Sack #2: Second & goal: This is the most basic of defensive line stunts, requiring the simplest of adjustments by an offensive lineman. Packers center Evan Dietrich Smith fails miserably. When the DL on his nose shoots the gap towards Josh Sitton, instead of letting him go to Sitton, EDS chases after him. Even having done that, he still had time to pull back and pick up Kerrigan going through the space he had just vacated, but instead doesn’t even appear to see him. That is, until he reaches back and gets away with a desperation grab on Kerrigan, not that it mattered. There could be some blame for Sitton here, too. Seeing Kerrigan loop around, he should be telling EDS to slide back over and pick him up. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. That part we don’t know.
Sack #3: First & 10: This is just a snap decision by Rodgers that did not work out at all. Rodgers drops back and sees LB Perry Riley with an apparent free on the edge. Rodgers decides discretion is the better part of valor and decides to high-tail it in the opposite direction (Either Aikman or Buck said on the TV broadcast that this was a designed rollout, but I don’t see that at all). Unfortunately he runs right into the path of Brian Orakpo, who Bakhtiari was allowing to take a wide turn, surely figuring Rodgers would be stepping up in the pocket. DBak looks like the most surprised guy in the house when Rodgers ends up right behind him and right in Orakpo’s path. Ironically, Perry ended up being picked up by TJ Lang, who alertly slid out and pushed him wide. Had Rodgers stayed, he would have been better off, but that’s purely hindsight.
Sack #4: Third & 10. There’s a lot going on with this one. First, it’s a wonderfully designed and disguised blitz scheme by the Redskins. Cornerback Josh Wilson appears to be playing press coverage on Randall Cobb. Brian Orakpo is out wide and takes a wide approach, forcing DBak to chase him. Wilson lets Cobb go and loops into the large gap inside DBak and has a straight line to Rodgers. LB Riley Perry, who is showing potential blitz, instead peels off to pick up Cobb. That’s the Redskins side. For the Packers, there are several ways they could have prevented the sack here. Looking at the second replay, you can see Cobb recognizes what’s happened and immediately looks back for the ball. He would be considered the “hot” receiver and Rodgers seems to be looking at him. Rodgers holds on to the ball, I think because he was still in his drop and did not have his feet set as he would have liked.
Looking at the first run-through of the play, you can see Rodgers look over to the the left twice, then turn to James Starks on his right. What did he say to Starks? One thing he could have been doing was telling Starks to be ready to help on the left side. If he did, Starks didn’t hear him, because he instead heads into the direction of the right flat. Perhaps he told Starks to head out there and be ready for a quick dump off, knowing he’d be getting pressure. If that was the plan, then Redskins DL Barry Cofield blew that up by reading it and rather than rushing Rodgers, went out to meet Starks and blow up the route.
So there are your four sacks. All except the first Kerrigan sack could have been avoided with some better decision-making by the Packers. The last two are mostly on Aaron Rodgers.
This is only the second regular season game for the offensive line in this configuration. Improvement is to be expected and if they can get the sack total down into the 30s on the year, I’d be content with that improvement. If the number is closer to 50, then some heads need to roll.——————
Jersey Al Bracco is the founder and editor of AllGreenBayPackers.com, and the co-founder of Packers Talk Radio Network. He can be heard as one of the Co-Hosts on Cheesehead Radio and is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.