The offensive and defensive lines were already expected to be in the spotlight when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle for the club's highly anticipated regular-season opener.
The spotlight will shine even brighter now that the Packers have lost a key starter on each side of the trenches.
In just the last 48 hours, the Packers have learned they will be without nose tackle B.J. Raji and center JC Tretter for the Sept. 4 clash with the Seahawks. Raji has a torn biceps that will require season-ending surgery, while head coach Mike McCarthy revealed that Tretter is dealing with a "significant" knee injury that will require "multiple weeks" to heal.
"This is the way the NFL is," McCarthy said Sunday, via the team's official site. "Injuries are part of our game. It's unfortunate. But it will not stop us."
Both players were injured in the first half of Green Bay's 31-21 win over the Oakland Raiders last Friday. The Packers now have less than two weeks to groom two new starters before taking on the defending champs.
Even at full strength, the Packers would be tested to the max by Seattle's disruptive defensive line and powerful, run-heavy offensive line.
The Seahawks graded out as the best pass-rushing defense at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) a year ago, mostly because of their dominance up front. Seattle tallied 278 quarterback disruptions and 63 quarterback hits from just its defensive line in 2013, which averages out to roughly 17 disruptions and four hits per game.
Overall, the Seahawks had 44 sacks, including 8.5 from Michael Bennett and 8.0 from Cliff Avril.
While Seattle's secondary receives most of the headlines, a defense doesn't allow a 63.4 opponent passer rating over a full season without a consistent pass rush.
The Packers were going to take on Seattle with inexperience at center either way, but Tretter—a fourth-round pick in 2013—had been groomed all offseason to be the guy. General manager Ted Thompson let 2013 starter Evan Dietrich-Smith pursue other opportunities in free agency because there was a trust in Tretter taking hold of the job this summer. He did.
Now, fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley will be snapping the football to Aaron Rodgers in Seattle. He'll get just a handful of practices to work with the first-team offense beforehand. And because Rodgers isn't likely to play in Thursday's preseason finale, the regular-season opener should represent the first time the two work together in a live contest.
The Packers have been down this road before. Last August, left tackle Bryan Bulaga blew out his knee, forcing fourth-round rookie David Bakhtiari into the starting lineup. He held up just fine on the blind side.
Linsley, who started 26 straight games for Ohio State in the rough-and-tough Big 10, has looked like a player this August.
Per PFF, Linsley has graded out (subscription required) as the third-best center in the NFL this preseason. He's faced nothing but second- and third-string defensive players, but the rookie has held his own.
"He could play and they wouldn't miss a beat," a personnel man told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He has that rare ability to stay in front of guys. Recovers well. Has balance and athleticism. Like him."
Linsley started college games at the Big House (Michigan Stadium), Camp Randall Stadium and Happy Valley (Beaver Stadium), which certainly qualify as loud, raucous environments. But nothing can prepare a rookie for stepping into CenturyLink Field—the loudest stadium in the NFL—and facing one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.
McCarthy didn't appear worried.
"He has a very good understanding of our offense," McCarthy said. "We won't change anything for how we approach games moving forward. I feel very confident."
While Tretter will return this season, Raji won't. The impact of his loss will likely be felt right away in Seattle.
The Seahawks can't be considered dominant along the offensive line. There have been struggles protecting Russell Wilson at times, including during this preseason. But the rushing numbers speak for themselves.
Seattle rushed for 2,188 yards in 2013, good for the fourth most in the NFL. The year before, the Seahawks were third in the league with 2,579 rushing yards.
While Wilson continues to grow as a quarterback, and the Seahawks become more and more reliant on his abilities as a passer, the Seattle offense is still one based in pounding the football on the ground. Pete Carroll's game plan for the opener was going to include a high percentage of runs, with or without Raji on the other side.
The Packers now have to find a way to stop those runs sans the 334-pounder.
Green Bay has gotten considerably smaller and quicker along the defensive line this offseason, replacing Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett with Datone Jones and Mike Daniels in the starting lineup. Raji, who moved from end to his more natural position at nose tackle, was expected to be the block-eating cog in the middle.
Josh Boyd, Mike Pennel and Letroy Guion will now be asked to fill the role.
Boyd is just 310 pounds. Pennel is an undrafted free agent. Guion hasn't practiced at all during training camp. The Packers need one of the three to take the opportunity and run with it.
"I think Josh Boyd is getting better each and every week," McCarthy said. "Think you really saw him come on at the end of season. He's picked up where he left off. B.J. has been such an anchor in there, particularly the way we've approached defense this year. We're counting on someone stepping up."
Raji's loss can be masked partly by Green Bay's reliance on subpackages. Few defenses in the NFL play more nickel or dime, which takes the nose tackle off the field. But that might be a rare luxury against the Seahawks.
Seattle is as comfortable lining up with two tight ends and pounding the football as the Packers are spreading the field and running the no-huddle. If the Seahawks go big and run the football, Green Bay's lack of depth along the defensive line could be exposed.
|Packers Run Defense vs. Seattle Run Offense, 2013|
|GB Run Defense||432||2000||4.6||16||125.0|
|SEA Run Offense||509||2188||4.3||14||136.8|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Remember, the Packers gave up 2,000 rushing yards a year ago. Opponents averaged 4.6 yards per rush. Green Bay then replaced the big bodies once counted on to stop the run with a smaller, more active front.
Raji was the lone remaining wide body left, and now he's gone.
Honest questions will be answered in Seattle.
Can Boyd handle 25 snaps a game on the nose, a position he's rarely played? Pennel has lived in the offensive backfield this summer, but can he be disruptive against a starting offensive line? Guion had some ugly tape with Minnesota, and will he even be ready to play by Sept. 4?
Green Bay can't expect to beat the defending champions at CenturyLink Field without playing well along each line. That assignment got much more difficult over the last two days.
The Packers have less than two weeks to ready two players not expected to play significant roles in 2014. In Seattle, the spotlight will shine brightest on the next man up.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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