After a week of having to endure untold amounts of criticism—some of it reasoned, much of it hilariously inept barking by television personalities with airtime to fill—the Green Bay Packers offense exploded for 42 points against what at the time was the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
"There's the Packers team we thought we'd see this year!" was a common refrain from fans and media alike after quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for a franchise-record-tying six touchdowns against the Houston Texans this past Sunday night.
Obviously, Rodgers and his core of receiving talent found a groove. The Packers quarterback was able to get the ball out in rhythm most of the night. Play after play, you could see him scan the field, go through his progressions and get the ball out of his hand. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and particularly James Jones did their part by making a bevy of fantastic catches against mostly man coverage.
However, none of the above would have been possible without the exemplary play of the Packers offensive line.
Earlier this season, when everyone was highlighting Green Bay's problems, a lot of people were focused on Aaron Rodgers and the receivers while the offensive line was mostly getting a pass.
But folks were asking what was up with Bryan Bulaga after watching Bruce Irvin smoke him on national television back in Week 3. The whole game against the Seahawks was a headline-generating nightmare after the unit helped in giving up eight sacks in the first half.
But it wasn't just the Seahawks game.
Starting back in Week 1, you could see the line wasn't operating at the level observers had grown accustomed to when the Packers offense was putting up record numbers in 2011. The only personnel difference was at center, where veteran free agent Jeff Saturday had come over from Indianapolis to replace the departed Scott Wells.
Now, Saturday has played well for the Packers, but there had been a noticeable drop-off from Wells. That's not all that surprising, as Wells was arguably the Packers' best offensive lineman in 2011. But that simple switch wasn't enough to explain the offensive struggles in the early part of this season.
The Packers devoted a good deal of time to the no-huddle offense during camp this summer. With the move to even more spread formations and little huddling between plays, it has appeared that more of the burden of the protection calls have fallen on Rodgers. I can't be sure, of course, but you rarely see Saturday pointing out the Mike linebacker the way you always saw Wells doing so prior to nearly every play.
McCarthy hinted this summer that Rodgers would be given more responsibility at the line of scrimmage. It's pretty evident that increase in responsibility has been tied in to the liberal use of the no-huddle.
The problem has come when the Packers were trying to play an almost fast-break style of offense, but the fundamentals of the game were being forgotten or perhaps being allowed to slide.
Well, not anymore.
A look at the coaches' tape from the game down in Houston shows you a group that played about as perfectly as you could ask.
Tackles Marshall Newhouse and Bryan Bulaga, who had been the major weaknesses in pass protection coming into the game, had rock solid performances. The interior linemen, guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, along with Saturday at center, had a tougher assignment as they were asked to deal with Texans defensive phenom J.J. Watt for most of the game. But Sitton, in particular, did about as well as you could ask any lineman to do, especially considering the havoc Watt had been wreaking along offensive lines all season prior to this game.
The excellent work upfront lead to a game of pitch-and-catch for Rodgers and his receivers. When Rodgers gets into a rhythm, he is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks I have ever seen play the game. What the 2011 Packers offense had for the majority of the year that its 2012 counterpart had been missing, at least in the passing game, was that rhythm, and much of that was due to a muddy pocket for the quarterback.
Now, Rodgers can tend to be his own worst enemy with his tendency to hold onto the ball while looking for a big play. But he also spent a good part of the season leading up to the Texans game with a pocket that he couldn't always trust. While much was being made of the receivers and their ability to get off press-man coverage (another way to take this offense out of that rhythm I mentioned earlier), little was said about the quarterback constantly having to make throws while eluding offensive linemen that had been pushed back or straight-up beaten.
That all changed Sunday night.
Of Rodgers' six touchdown passes, three came from an absolutely clean pocket.
Take a look below.
If your are a quarterback, this is your absolute dream. This is what turns the game into a 7-on-7 exercise. The hardest part for opposing defenses is that you see the quarterback in rhythm, you think "Hey, we have to blitz this guy," and then he hits Tom Crabtree for a huge touchdown while getting crushed on a roll-out play designed to be thrown to the fullback to simply pick up the first down.
The Packers turned a big corner against the Texans. Things don't get any easier this Sunday in St. Louis. The Rams may not have a singularly disruptive force like J.J. Watt, but I would argue their defensive front, especially that defensive line, will give the Packers offensive line more trouble than the Texans front did.
As long as the Packers stick to their fundamentals and keep things relatively clean for their quarterback, they should keep finding success on the offensive side of the ball.
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