Breaking Down Green Bay Packers' Persistent Protection Problems
At this point, it's safe to say the Packers' offensive line has issues. Maybe enough to fill a newsstand.
Clever quips aside, the Packers continue to have issues protecting Aaron Rodgers. Yes, Sunday night was brutal and you could excuse the performance as that of a battered and overmatched offensive line meeting a tremendous defensive front.
You could, but you shouldn't.
The fact is, these issues with the line go back several years. That elite defenses like the Giants, Bears or Seahawks are the ones who have lit up the offensive line shouldn't distract from the fact that the line line has some real issues.
Yes, by the way, the Bears beat up on the Packers' offensive line. Rodgers didn't implode like Cutler did that night, but really that speaks more to Rodgers' self-control and the fact that the awful Bears line overshadowed the awful Packers' line that night.
When I broke down the NFC North offensive lines this summer, one concern I had for the Packers was depth. I felt like it was there, but a ton of it was unproven.
Pound for pound, the starters for the Packers are the best in the division across the board, save maybe for left tackle. The depth looked pretty shaky though.
That has been borne out in the past few weeks.
In 2010 the Packers were able to overcome that, but it doesn't seem to be the case this year.
What's going wrong?
Well, the first problem—and arguably the biggest—is head coach Mike McCarthy's refusal to have anyone pitch in and help the tackles. It's something most glaring on a night like Sunday night, against deadly edge rushers like the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul.
Mike McCarthy said they had a plan they got away from and, according to the Journal-Sentinel's Tom Silverstein, blamed himself for poor play selection.
I won't dispute that—some of the play calling was awful—but if he's going to take the blame for something, it's a lack of scheming to shore up weaknesses.
Marshall Newhouse is a decent left tackle. He's not the worst in the league by a stretch, but he's not the best either. He can't be left on his own to take on the likes of Pierre-Paul for an entire game. TJ Lang is better at right tackle (replacing the injured and struggling Bryan Bulaga), but he's hard-pressed to defend against the elite tacklers as well.
Evan Dietrich-Smith, who took over for Lang at left guard, is brutal at the position. He can get better, but again, it's not happening against a pass rush like the Giants have.
They need help, especially the left side of the line which was just abused all night on Sunday.
However, McCarthy refuses to give them that help. He'll drop an extra couple of players in the backfield to lead block on a run play but rarely will drop in those same extra blockers on a pass play.
If you think you see one, watch the play again. Ninety-nine percent of the time they run out on a route without even chipping an incoming defender.
When your tackles are getting manhandled as they block solo, why do you keep letting them do it? Why spread the receivers out and leave no extra help?
It's an aspect of McCarthy I will never understand, and it happens way more than just Sunday night.
In fact, during the three worst performances this year—the aforementioned Bears/Seahawks/Giants debacles—McCarthy barely changed things up in terms of protection.
This isn't to say it never happens, just that it happens rarely.
One potential solution came up on Twitter—or at least resurfaced on Twitter—this weekend: using a two-tight end set to help the tackles out.
In other words, as Daniel Lindsey of Gameday Chatter put it to me: have Tom Crabtree on the right side to assist Lang and Jermichael Finley on the left to help Newhouse, at worst chipping a defender before going out on a pass route.
It's certainly a good idea, and not uncommon for a lot of teams. The Packers rarely do it, though.
To some extent, the tight ends aren't great blockers. Finley is all right but inconsistent. Crabtree is steady. The rest of the tight ends are serviceable.
None of them are what you would call a traditional blocking tight end. It should be in their repertoire, but perhaps McCarthy doesn't trust them.
If not a tight end, what about one of the running backs or fullback John Kuhn?
The remaining running backs—James Starks and Alex Green—are not fantastic blockers. Kuhn is, and he certainly draws more of that work than anyone else.
However, even Kuhn sees less work than many fans would like in terms of supporting the blocking efforts of a battered and underperforming offensive line.
Why is that?
I have a theory. It's only that—just something I have thought of watching the Packers for the last couple of years. It was further reinforced by McCarthy's words post-loss on Sunday.
McCarthy would rather go spread offense than "waste" a potential receiver on mere blocking duty.
I put waste in quotes because many fans, analysts and other coaches would not consider it that. I would submit that McCarthy does.
Consider the following quote, which I alluded to a short time ago:
"We had a plan and we didn't execute it very well," McCarthy said. "We got away from it and went to some spread things. That wasn't the answer. That was quite poor play selection on my part."
Again, the bolded emphasis is mine.
"Going to some spread things" isn't just a one-time event; it's a habit. McCarthy loves to spread his receivers out. Heck, I'd hazard a guess that Aaron Rodgers loves it too, given how much he throws the ball.
If push comes to shove—and it did Sunday—McCarthy falls back on that habit. I'd wager he doesn't even realize he is doing it until after the fact. The line has issues, so he wants to give Rodgers as many outlets for a pass as possible.
Stretch the defense wide and hopefully that should deter and diffuse the pass rush.
Expect for when it doesn't.
The Giants were too fast for that tactic to be sustainable. Sure, Jordy Nelson burned them long on a touchdown early. After that? Not many long passes got out of Rodgers' hand, forget reaching a receiver's.
McCarthy has to find a way to stop going to that well because it's bone dry.
He needs to bite the bullet and start dumping the spread and keeping in players to block. He may think it's a waste to have a guy who could be receiving staying in to block, but in this case the opposite is true.
It's a waste to have a player running a route when he could be blocking.
Or rather, it's a waste to have him running a route when Rodgers is running for his life and never delivers the ball.
All that is a short-term view, but before we finish here I think we need to talk about a longer term view as well.
The Packers need to start concentrating on getting deeper at the offensive line positions. The team is excellent in acquiring depth virtually everywhere else, but even before injuries hit the offensive line, the depth there was negligible at best.
Not having offensive line depth—not having guys to turn to when a starter is hurt—is far more damaging than not having a stud at one of the key positions on that line.
Some good offensive lines have a lot of no-name players doing great work. Meanwhile, there are some awful offensive lines with one or two studs and nobody else.
If one of the studs is hurt or plays badly, the entire line goes south.
The New York Jets are a perfect example here. Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson are among the best at their positions, but the rest of that line is horrific.
Ferguson is struggling this year and they have had two years of injury problems, so now all the holes they patched with their two studs are clear as day.
Meaning no offense to the Packers' offensive line, it doesn't even have that one clear stud. But it does have some very good players.
Now that some of them are hurt, those players cannot overcome the shortcomings of the lesser players on the line. Not having any real talent on the depth chart behind the starters only makes this worse.
So this last bit is for both McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson.
Start drafting offensive line talent. Acquire great depth along the line. They don't all have to be studs, but don't wait until the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds and hope to find a diamond in the rough.
Sure, Derek Sherrod isn't working out, but Bryan Bulaga has been. He struggled this year, but he was playing well before then and will again when he isn't hurt.
You have wide receivers, you have tons of defensive talent. You can find a good running back in the mid-rounds of the draft, and you can continue to find quarterbacks to groom in the second half of the draft.
Offensive line talent becomes very hit or miss the later the draft goes. The players are there, but if you're not quick, they are gone when the talent starts to thin.
Make the line a priority. Get Aaron Rodgers—your undisputed MVP on the team—the protection he needs to utilize that talent in the offense safely.
Before the protection issues spread to the quarterback position as well.
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