Even the hardest-hearted grader would have trouble faulting Ted Thompson for his approach in filling the offensive tackle positions the past two years.
He drafted Brian Bulaga in the first round in 2010, Derek Sherrod in the first round in 2011 and Marshall Newhouse in the fifth round in ’10. Thompson also gave Chad Clifton a three-year contract extension before releasing him two years in when his age and injury history became prohibitive. While Sherrod has yet to show anything due to injury, Bulaga had established himself as a solid right tackle with Pro Bowl potential before going down in Week 9 of 2012 with a freak hip injury. This, of course, forced the reshuffling of the offensive line that sent T.J. Lang to right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith to left guard. And the domination that the Giants laid on Green Bay’s offensive line in Week 13 can be attributed in some part to Lang’s unfamiliarity with the position.
The Packers have allowed 37 sacks of Aaron Rodgers with five games to go, four against good pass-rushing teams, and are on pace to break the record they set in 2009 when Rodgers absorbed fifty sacks. Not coincidentally, that was also the year when Lang and fellow guard Daryn Colledge split time at left tackle to cover for Clifton’s absence.
This isn’t a knock on Lang. He’s one heck of a guard, particularly when his bad right elbow is healthy, and the pairing of him and Josh Sitton is the best the Packers have had at guard since Mike Wahle and Marco Riviera. But he’s not a tackle. And ideally, he shouldn’t have been playing there. No offense to undrafted rookie Don Barclay, but the Packers knew going into the season that they didn’t have a legitimate backup at either tackle spot. If they did, Lang wouldn’t be playing out of position the way he is now. They carried just seven offensive linemen on the regular-season roster, and now the lack of a real backup at tackle is taking its toll on the line and on Rodgers.
Nobody could’ve predicted the leg injury to Sherrod in Week 15 last year, which universally elicited the adjective “gruesome” from sports commentators and keeps him out to this day. And few would argue that using the draft to reload a toothless defense with young talent was a poor move. But with the Packers’ emphasis this offseason on signing veteran free agents, even if most didn’t stick—Anthony Hargrove, Philip Merling, Jeff Saturday, Daniel Muir et al—it’s shocking that they never pursued a veteran tackle. Now, once again, an injury at one position on the line has left them weaker at two positions in a way that was eminently avoidable.
As I wrote in my last post, nothing is over with. The Packers lead the race for the wild-card spots and are a game back of Chicago for the division with five to play. But the expectations are higher in Green Bay than just gaining the team’s fourth straight playoff berth. They won’t get far in the playoffs with pass-rushers overrunning the line the way the Giants did in Week 13. It’s up to Lang, Rodgers, possibly Barclay, and Mike McCarthy to jerry-rig some kind of plan at RT and make it work for the moment.
If not, the pressure on Rodgers — and the consequent dysfunction of the offense — could sink Green Bay’s season as quickly as last year’s.