We are a quarter of the way through the regular season and the Packers are sitting at 3-1 with the much improved and Tony Romo-less Cowboys looming this week. Several questions will need answers this week for the Packers. While Aaron Rodgers has played solidly at times this year, will he regain his MVP or even Pro Bowl form? Will the defense continue to improve after an excellent performance against the Giants? And, my favorite question, will the offensive line keep taking steps in the right direction? Let’s take a closer look at how the front five of the Packers have done so far this season.
To start, let’s jump in the DeLorean and revisit the start of the year. This season we were looking forward to a veteran offensive line that had played together for over three years to dominate up front for the Packers. First, we see one of the upcoming centers in the league, Corey Linsley, have a serious hamstring issue that will keep him out indefinitely. Enter JC Tretter, the backup with a lot of potential who had not yet proven himself over the course of a season at the NFL level. Then the Packers made the surprise decision to cut Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton in favor on the untested Lane Taylor. While no definite reason has been given for the release, rumors suspect that there were tensions between Head Coach Mike McCarthy and Sitton over the past season or two. Losing two of the cogs of that veteran offensive line coupled with the fact that two of the other starters, David Bakhtiari and T.J. Lang, were free agents after the season gave a lot of people (including myself) a pause of uncertainty entering the season and for the future of the offensive line.
Now, four weeks later, what are the verdicts on the moves the Packers made and the play of the offensive line so far? The first, and I think the best, move for the future was extending left tackle David Bakhtiari. The five-year, $51.67 million deal was agreed to the day before the week one victory over Jacksonville. Securing the youngest and one of the higher ranked left tackles in the league was a priority and the Packers are already seeing the benefits of the move. Bakhtiari is playing extremely well this year and is taking his game to the next level. So far, his pass protection has been nothing short of stellar and is playing in a way that could get him some Pro Bowl consideration. Hopefully, he can keep improving each week and lead the way for the Packers.
Now, for the new guys thrust into the spotlight, JC Tretter and Lane Taylor. Tretter has shown the ability that he flashed a few years ago before a knee injury gave Corey Linsley the center position. Tretter has been amazing in his communication with the line calls (you can hear most of his calls from the mics pointed at Aaron Rodgers to pick up his cadence) and his blocking has been outstanding. He moves his feet well and is able to get to the double teams and not lose leverage throughout the play. He has made the transition from the Linsley injury seamless and it will be difficult justifying replacing him if Linsley comes back this year.
Lane Taylor isn’t having as good of a season as Tretter but his production has good enough to make the move of dropping Sitton sit easier with me and (hopefully) most of the fans out there. Taylor works very well in the run game but that is where he succeeded the most in the past. He has a tough road-grader type of play and it shows as most of Eddie Lacy’s yards this year have come from running inside zone plays. His biggest weakness comes in pass protection. His feet aren’t quick enough to set against the better pass rushers in the league and needs to improve if he wants to hold onto the position down the road. Even needing to improve in that area, he has the help on both sides of him, especially from Tretter, if he needs help with certain players.
On the right side, T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga have been excellent per usual. Lang is having an especially good year in all phases and should finally get a nod for the Pro Bowl if he stays healthy. Even Cris Collinsworth said that much in the game on Sunday night against the Giants. I find that especially impressive since it is very rare whenever Collinsworth talks positively about any offensive line. Bulaga just keeps grinding and keeping the right side pass rush in check. Oliver Vernon was a big money pass rusher the Giants signed last year and the only time you heard his name called was when the announcers were amazed that Bulaga was dominating him.
So, what does this all mean? It means we’re only four games into the season and there is a lot of football to be played, but we should be sleeping a little easier when it comes to the offensive line, especially the pass blocking. The Packers, as a whole, have only given up 17 pressures on Aaron Rodgers all year. In comparison, Bobby Massie, the right tackle for the Bears has given up 19 pressures all by himself. The one area of improvement needs to be in the run game. The Packers are averaging 104 yards rushing per game but that isn’t very impressive. Eddie Lacy leads the rushers with 295 yards on the season and is on pace for almost 1,200 yards, but he does not have a rushing touchdown yet. In fact, Aaron Rodgers is the only player to have a rushing touchdown this season and if the Packers expect to make some noise in the playoffs, that needs to improve.
At the end of the day, the questions about the offensive line seem to be solved and this group of linemen seems to be getting more comfortable with each other each week. That will only benefit the Packers in the long run. As always, these players and us as fans can’t be satisfied with having a good start. We need them to finish the season just as strong as they started.