There's plenty to like about a Green Bay Packers offensive line that came into the season with a strong reputation, and outside of Jeff Saturday, has four players entering the prime of their careers.
At the same time, the Green Bay offense has also given up the second-most sacks in the NFL this season, so clearly there are some issues on the offensive line.
Through six games, Aaron Rodgers has endured 23 sacks. Only the Arizona Cardinals have given up more (28). And when you're trying to protect the reigning NFL MVP, that's far too many hits for such a valuable player to be taking.
Certainly, not all the blame falls on the offensive line. The running backs and Rodgers himself share some of the responsibility for allowing sacks as well.
But the purpose here is to take a critical look at the offensive line and where it can get better.
Coming into the season
Entering the season, the Packers were hailed as having one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. It was only one opinion, but in the preseason position rankings at SB Nation, writer Ryan Van Bibber listed the Packers as having the No. 1 offensive line in the NFL:
Aaron Rodgers is one of those quarterbacks that makes his line look way better, particularly in the case of Marshall Newhouse who should improve in his third year. If he does not, they have Derek Sherrod, a first-round pick in 2011, waiting in the wings. The interior line is second to none. Jeff Saturday was a smart way to replace Scott Wells, even at his advanced age.
In signing Saturday as a free agent in the offseason, the Packers potentially added a Hall of Fame center to their offensive line.
And to surround him, the Packers have four guards and tackles who were thought to be trending upward. Bookend tackles Newhouse and Bryan Bulaga are both in their third year in the NFL, while T.J. Lang is in his fourth and Josh Sitton in his fifth.
The offensive line, at times, has lived up to their top billing. Coming into the season, there were a lot of question marks surrounding Newhouse after giving up so many sacks a season ago. But he acquitted himself well in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers when going up against Justin and Aldon Smith and not giving up a single sack.
In Week 4 against the New Orleans Saints, the offensive line pitched a shutout by not allowing a single sack all game. And most recently, they're commended for the job they did against Houston and limiting the damage done by J.J. Watt and rest of the highly regarded Texans defense.
The biggest problem for the Packers offensive line has been consistency, however.
Bob McGinn broke down the performance of the offensive line in the Seahawks game by writing:
Bryan Bulaga and Marshall Newhouse have been getting beat too much inside since the exhibition games. That's the shortest route to the QB and just can't happen. Bulaga appeared to play without any confidence against rookie DE Bruce Irvin, who beat him inside for two sacks plus a hurry. On the first third down, Irvin knocked Bulaga back and off his feet with an arm bar to the chest.
The film confirms what McGinn wrote, as does this frame-by-frame breakdown by Bleacher Report's own Andrew Garda.
In an article looking at each of the sacks Packers gave up against the Seahawks, Garda wrote, "If you've ever played football (or watched enough of it) you know the low man almost always wins. If a lineman stands up, 99 percent of the time that's that."
It's disappointing that Bulaga has been the subject of so much scrutiny seeing as he came into the season as one of the best young up-and-coming tackles in the NFL.
After the first six weeks of this season, Bulaga has given up 25 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com (premium subscription required) after giving up 24 in an entire season last year.
Perhaps part of the reason for Bulaga's struggles this season is because of a knee injury that's more serious than anyone in the organization is willing to admit. Bulaga rather mysteriously appeared on the team's injury report following the Seahawks game and there didn't appear to be any one moment in which he sustained an injury.
To that end, maybe it's just important for Bulaga to get healthy and get back to the same level he was at in 2011.
Help from the coaches
Outside of Bulaga, the offensive line has been mostly solid.
Newhouse seems to have one mistake per game, such being late in getting off the snap or being beat to the inside, as McGinn pointed out earlier. But he's made major strides in pass protection.
The guards, Lang and Sitton, have been as good as advertised and are one of the best guard tandems in the NFL. They're both physical and rugged and do little to hurt the Packers either in the pass or the run game.
If there's another shortcoming on the offensive line, it might be the mobility of an aging Saturday at center.
Once again, McGinn points out, "He's better in-line than at the LB level, where his limitations in speed and athletic ability are more pronounced."
There's little the Packers can do except understand the limitations of Saturday and not ask him to do more than is reasonable to ask. At 37 years old, Saturday is not getting any younger, so he's not magically going to become better at getting to the second level of the defense.
Similarly, the coaching staff can help out the offensive line by calling for a more balanced game plan than they did in Seattle and Indianapolis.
In both of those games the Packers passed the football far too heavily, and the opposition was not forced to honor the Packers' rushing attack.
Defenders were able to pass rush with abandon with no regard for playing the run.
If the Packers offensive line is going to improve this season, it's going to come about by becoming more consistent, not getting beat to the inside and becoming healthy, while at the same time being helped out by the coaching staff knowing its limitations and calling for a balanced offense.
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