Front and Center: How Evan Dietrich-Smith Became Essential to Packers Offense

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2013

Green Bay Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith was not an essential cog in the Green Bay offense in 2010. In fact, he was so inessential that he was expendable; the Packers, after signing him as an undrafted free agent after the 2009 NFL draft, cut him before the 2010 season started.

Then, when Marshall Newhouse was placed on injured reserve, the Packers re-signed Dietrich-Smith on New Year's Day 2010. Now, as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2014 along with 15 other Packers, his contract is one the team is sure to extend. 

Not only is he essential, but now he's indispensable. Especially in light of the injuries the Packers have faced on both the offensive line and at the quarterback position this season, Dietrich-Smith has become a huge factor in this final four-game stretch of the season.


A Second Chance

Going undrafted out of Idaho State wasn't Dietrich-Smith's biggest obstacle on his path to earning a job on an NFL team. According to Pro Football Talk, last year 37 percent of the league's undrafted rookies earned jobs on either the practice squad or 53-man rosters of their teams, a higher percentage than might be expected. 

No, the biggest thing standing in Dietrich-Smith's way was his lifestyle and his dedication. His hard-partying ways and inability to live up to his potential earned him an early exit from Green Bay after final cuts in 2010. 

"I think a lot of guys, when you get in your first year of playing in the league, you get more enamored by the fact you're playing football for a living," Dietrich-Smith told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Rob Reischel. "You're like, 'Screw it.' Back then, I certainly didn't think I needed to clean anything up."

Perhaps Dietrich-Smith's wake-up call came after Seattle, which claimed him a day after his release from the Packers, released him four weeks later and he found himself unemployed with a daughter on the way. 

Dietrich-Smith kept himself in football shape all the while knowing that he might have already played his last snap in the NFL. However, even more unlikely than being signed as an undrafted rookie, Dietrich-Smith was given a second chance in Green Bay on New Year's Day 2010, when the team re-signed him to replace the injured Newhouse.

It was another injury that gave Dietrich-Smith the next opportunity in his career, when Josh Sitton was injured in Week 12 of the 2011 season against Detroit. Dietrich-Smith entered the lineup at right guard and became a household name in his first significant game, when he was stomped on by Ndamukong Suh.

The starting job at right tackle was Dietrich-Smith's for the next two games against the Giants and Raiders, before he shifted to starting left guard on Christmas Day 2011 when T.J. Lang shifted to right tackle in place of the injured Bryan Bulaga. The offensive line won a game ball that game for not allowing a single sack on Rodgers for the first time that season.

It was in 2012, however, that the competition at center between Dietrich-Smith and Jeff Saturday began.


At the Center 

In what to this day remains perhaps Ted Thompson's most uncharacteristic free-agent signing, the Packers replaced center Scott Wells early in the offseason in 2012 with the acquisition of Saturday, in a deal worth $7.75 million

Of course, looking back now, Saturday's short career in Green Bay demonstrates why Thompson and the Packers tend to steer clear of flashy free-agent signings, preferring to develop players to be called up when the time is right.

Saturday was expensive (for comparison, Dietrich-Smith is currently under a one-year, $1.323 million contract) and his age—37 when the Packers signed him—was a point of merit in terms of his experience, but it also meant he was just getting beat by younger, faster, stronger defenders. 

Still, the move was necessary at the time. The young Dietrich-Smith had only been in the system a short time, and though he was a candidate to be groomed for the future starting center job, he had yet to make a career start at the position. 

The fast-paced, heavy no-huddle offense the Packers were running under Aaron Rodgers required someone with experience, according to Mike McCarthy. 

"I think the way we play on offense it's important to have a veteran center," McCarthy said after the Saturday signing, via ESPN Milwaukee's Jason Wilde.

However, by Week 16 of the 2012 season it became clear that Saturday wasn't up to the task physically despite his valuable experience. He was benched in favor of the younger, more energetic Dietrich-Smith in Week 16, and Dietrich-Smith got the starting nod at the position through the final two regular-season games and into the first two weeks of the postseason.

If there wasn't certainty that Dietrich-Smith would be the starting center heading into the 2013 season after his performance at the end of 2012, in which he earned above-average Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades across the board in every game, the two players who may have also been considered for the position—rookie fourth-rounder JC Tretter and Greg Van Roten—were lost to injuries. 

Even after Bulaga, who had been given the nod for starting left tackle heading into the season, was injured in training camp and his role ultimately won by rookie tackle David Bakhtiari, the offensive line jumped out to an improvement over 2012 with Dietrich-Smith at the center.

After the first quarter of the season in 2013, Pro Football Focus ranked the Packers offensive line seventh best in the league after it finished 21st in 2012. Lang excelled in the move from the left side to the right, and the rookie Bakhtiari performed more capably than expected. 

The table below shows the line's grades overall, in pass blocking and in run blocking each week in 2013. (Zero is average).

Packers Offensive Line Grades - 2013
WeekPFF Overall Line GradePFF Pass-Blocking GradePFF Run-Blocking Grade
Week 1 @ SF-5.2-3.6-2.2
Week 2 vs. WAS13.56.46.3
Week 3 @ CIN3.10.5-1.3
Week 5 vs. DET-0.51.5-2.3
Week 6 @ BAL-8.6-3.3-5.1
Week 7 vs. CLE-1.62.7-5.6
Week 8 @ MIN2.21.70.2
Week 9 vs. CHI4.0-0.22.9
Week 10 vs. PHI7.76.6-1.3
Week 11 @ NYG0.11.0-2.3
Week 12 vs. MIN0.5-0.71.7
Week 13 @ DET-6.5-3.5-5.7
Pro Football Focus

Yes, there were some low points—notably in Week 1 against the 49ers and Week 6 against the Ravens in which Rodgers only completed 56.8 percent and 53.1 percent of his passes, respectively, his two season lows. The Packers also struggled on the ground in Week 1, rushing for only 63 yards, partly due to poor run blocking by the line.

And then, with the line's job already made more difficult by having four quarterbacks under center in as many weeks after Rodgers was injured in Week 9, it reached its breaking point when the glue holding it together, Dietrich-Smith, went down with a knee injury against the Lions in Week 13. 


Proving His Worth

As the table above shows, the offensive line earned its worst grade of the season collectively in Week 13 against the Lions. An already difficult showing offensively turned downright disastrous when Dietrich-Smith's injury forced Lang to move to center, Marshall Newhouse to right guard and Don Barclay to right tackle.

Newhouse, who earned negative grades both overall and in pass blocking, performed so poorly he was even pulled in the fourth quarter in favor of the rookie Lane Taylor, and Derek Sherrod was inserted at right tackle for the last six plays of the game after recently being activated from the PUP list.

That means Dietrich-Smith's injury, an injury to one lineman, caused five personnel swaps.

On his first play replacing Dietrich-Smith at center, Lang snapped the ball at an awkward angle to Matt Flynn, who struggled to secure it, which promptly led to his third sack of the game. 

It's hard to blame Lang after being thrust into a backup center position, having never taken a snap at center in a game, with a backup quarterback to boot. Rather, allow the play to illustrate how directly and obviously the already struggling line fell apart once it lost Dietrich-Smith.

Now, the Packers face the prospect of another nightmare day without him on Sunday, as his status for the Falcons game is uncertain as of Wednesday morning.

He returned to practice Tuesday after the knee injury he suffered against Detroit but sprained his right ankle after stepping on a teammates' foot, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Silverstein and Tyler Dunne.

Dietrich-Smith is necessary regardless of which quarterback is under center, but especially if it's Flynn. He's allowed just five quarterback hurries, compared to upwards of 10 allowed by Barclay, Newhouse, Bakhtiari and Lang, and one less than Sitton. He gives quarterbacks time in the pocket, an invaluable asset.

He's also ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 center in the league in pass blocking.

Moreover, Dietrich-Smith keeps quarterbacks off the ground. He has had nine games this season in which he did not allow a single sack. His four sacks allowed are a small fraction of the 32 allowed on the season.

Now, without him, the line gets shuffled once again—and that could be the biggest determining factor in whether the Packers can win on Sunday against Atlanta.

"The five guys we have up front, we have pretty good chemistry and when you have to shuffle everything around, it makes it a little more difficult" Dietrich-Smith told Silverstein and Dunne Tuesday.

It's not only Dietrich-Smith's production that makes him so important to the line, but his knowledge of the offense and his dedication, two things that he has worked to build since he was given a second chance with the organization. 

Playing so closely with Rodgers has also no doubt improved Dietrich-Smith's sharpness. He's trained himself to adjust on a dime to Rodgers' common audibles. And Rodgers has had nothing but praise for Dietrich-Smith, even suggesting early on that he would be the Packers' center of the future.

"In our offense, it's one of the most important positions of the 11," Rodgers, speaking about Dietrich-Smith, told Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette early last month.

"He's been very consistent with his snaps under center and in the shotgun, which is something you kind of take for granted at times, but it's a difficult thing to be perfect at and he's been near-perfect at that."

Now, with the possibility of the inexperienced Lang at center once again on Sunday, the Packers certainly won't be taking Dietrich-Smith for granted. The player they once cut has become the player they can't live without.



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