The potential season-ending injury to left tackle Bryan Bulaga provides a major setback to the reconstruction of the Green Bay Packers offensive line, but in no way is his loss a death blow to a team with Super Bowl aspirations in 2013.
With an elite quarterback leading an offense that is well-versed in dealing with offensive tackle injuries (including to Bulaga) and a re-stocked running back corp, the Packers can still make a serious run in the NFC this season.
The sobering news on Bulaga's injury trickled out slowly Sunday night.
Bob McGinn of the Journal-Sentinel first reported that the Packers were bracing for bad news on a previously undisclosed problem with Bulaga's knee. The injury initially occurred early on during the team's Family Night scrimmage Saturday night, but Bulaga didn't come off the field and waited until afterwards to seek treatment.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy later made no mention of the issue during his post-scrimmage press conference.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk confirmed the team's worst fear late Sunday night, as he learned through a league source that Bulaga had indeed suffered a season-ending ACL tear.
The Packers will now have a little over a month to establish a secondary plan along the offensive line.
Bulaga's transition from right to left tackle was, when combined with Josh Sitton's move to left guard, the centerpiece to McCarthy's blueprint for improving the Packers offensive line in 2013. Green Bay allowed 51 regular-season sacks of Aaron Rodgers last season and struggled to run the football for long stretches, both of which prompted McCarthy's reshuffle this offseason.
Luckily for McCarthy, he'll have four preseason contests to help determine his best combination of offensive tackles to start 2013.
The most likely scenario would involve moving Marshall Newhouse, who has started 28 games at left tackle since 2011, back to the left side of the line. The tackle has been battling for the right tackle job this summer with Bulaga entrenched at his old position. In this option, second-year tackle Don Barclay and 2013 fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari would then compete to be the starter on the right side.
Keep in mind, the Packers have gone 22-6 with Newhouse as the starting left tackle since 2011. While Rodgers has been sacked at a high rate (7.6 percent over the last two seasons), Green Bay has still been one of the most explosive passing offenses (91 passing touchdowns since '11) despite getting only average play at the tackle position.
Even with his development focused on playing right tackle this summer, Newhouse could be reasonably expected to improve on his 2012 season, when he finished as the No. 54 overall offensive tackle at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). For context, Bulaga finished No. 53 overall on that list last season.
In terms of PFF's grade points, Newhouse improved from minus-31.1 in 2011 (last in the NFL among tackles) to minus-4.5 in 2012. While he won't make another 26.6-point jump in 2013 (such an improvement would put him among the game's best tackles), his play is clearly trending up from when he originally took over the blindside duties in Green Bay.
The Packers might also feel a certain sense of confidence in what potentially could develop at right tackle.
After Bulaga's season-ending injury in Week 9 of last season, Green Bay called on Barclay, an undrafted free agent, at right tackle. What could have been an unmitigated disaster turned into arguably the most important save of the Packers 2012 season.
Barclay took some lumps early but eventually settled in as the offense's right tackle. He started the team's final four regular-season games and each playoff contest and was rarely overwhelmed by the situation.
In fact, the stats of last season tell an interesting story.
Over the first nine games of 2012, in which Bulaga was healthy for, the Packers allowed 29 sacks and averaged just 99.7 rushing yards a game. Over the nine games he missed, including the two postseason contests, Green Bay gave up just 26 sacks and actually improved their run total per game to 109.4 yards.
Interestingly enough, the Packers went 6-3 with Bulaga in the starting lineup, and 6-3 (including playoffs) after his season-ending injury. The offense averaged 26.6 points per game with Bulaga, and 27.6 without him.
The transition didn't seem to bother Rodgers much, either.
Over the first nine games of 2012, Rodgers had a yards per attempt average of 7.3 and a passer rating of 107.4. From Week 10 through the postseason, he posted numbers of 8.2 and 106.2.
Once Barclay had settled in at right tackle, Rodgers went on one of his best three-game stretches of the entire season, as he threw for 998 yards, 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions over Weeks 15-17.
The Packers would eventually fall to the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, but the offense did average 339 yards and 27.5 points in the two postseason games with Newhouse and Barclay manning the tackle positions. Had the Packers possessed any kind of defensive answer to Colin Kaepernick or avoided an early muffed punt that swung momentum, it's entirely possible that Green Bay could have been the team traveling to Atlanta for the NFC Championship Game and not the 49ers.
However, if the Packers decide against marching out Newhouse and Barclay as the starting tackles in Week 1 this season, it will be because a fourth-round rookie rightfully won a spot on the starting line.
Written off by many as a serious candidate to start as a first-year player, Bakhtiari has impressed during training camp and even received reps with the No. 1 offense during Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage. While his first-team reps came at right tackle this weekend, he's also worked as the No. 2 left tackle throughout the summer.
In the scenario in which Newhouse isn't shifted back to left tackle, Bakhtiari should be given every chance to be the starter there as a rookie. Ross Verba (1997) and Chad Clifton (2000) are both recent examples of first-year players starting on the blindside in Green Bay.
But even if Newhouse is moved, Bakhtiari would appear to have every opportunity to win the right tackle position over Barclay, who has been shifted around the offensive line during training camp.
Another factor that could help ease the loss of Bulaga is the vastly improved talent at the running back position.
Veterans Alex Green and James Starks are both completely healthy and have put together strong camps. Also, DuJuan Harris, the team's spark plug to end last season, figures to return to the practice field sooner rather than later from a knee injury.
But rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin still provide the real talent boost this group desperately needed.
Lacy looked every bit the part of an impact NFL running back during Saturday's scrimmage. He was a decisive runner at the point of attack, and he showed the important ability to make people miss at the second level. His most impressive runs, however, came with little to no room upfront. Instead of the one-yard runs that became commonplace for the Packers offense in 2012, Lacy frequently fell forward while turning nothing into something in the running game.
Franklin appears to be an ideal change-of-pace back who can also create at the second level.
Bulaga's best area has always been as a run blocker, but it's certainly possible that the talent of Lacy and Franklin can help nullify his loss in the running game. Remember, the Packers actually improved as a running team late in 2012 as Barclay brought a mean streak to the right side and Harris exploded onto the scene.
Still, there's no sugarcoating how big of loss Bulaga is to the Packers' 2013 season. He was likely to be an upgrade over Newhouse at left tackle, and he undoubtedly would have represented one of the team's five best offensive linemen to start next season. Few names ranked higher on their importance to this year's club than Bulaga.
However, writing off the Packers this season because of Bulaga's injury is far too premature.
Green Bay still has four preseason games and over a month on the calendar to readjust its plans on the offensive line. And with three capable players available to man two spots, McCarthy and the Packers can still feel confident in their ability to put together a unit upfront that can contribute to one of the NFL's best offenses, especially with Rodgers at quarterback.
Losing Bulaga will negatively impact the Packers in 2013, but this is still a team capable of playing deep into January in the NFC.
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