Giants pass rush vs Packers O-line might decide who goes home
By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin
~GREEN BAY – Say any of the following words to Aaron Rodgers these days – blueprint, recipe, formula – and you are in immediate danger of the Green Bay Packers quarterback giving you what has come to be known as The Offseason Workout Treatment.
After the Packers beat the New Orleans Saints in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener after Rodgers had been criticized in some precincts for not getting his teammates together during the lockout for player-organized workouts, Rodgers let it be known – through repeated snarky references to the difference the team’s non-existent offseason get-togethers had had on the outcome that night – that he didn’t agree with the premise.
So too is the case whenever it’s suggested to Rodgers that what the Kansas City Chiefs defense did in the Packers’ lone loss this season – generating pressure with its front four, dropping seven or eight defenders into coverage – showed other teams the way to slow down the NFL’s highest-scoring offense.
So while no one was telling Rodgers Tuesday that the New York Giants will win Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Lambeau Field because of what they learned from the Chiefs’ 19-14 victory on Dec. 18, it’s hard to deny that if the Giants can generate pressure on Rodgers with their front four, they give themselves a much better chance to win than if they blitz Rodgers.
“They’re a good front four. They’re really good. As a whole, they’re probably as good as you’re going to see in the league, as far as getting after the passer well,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison on Tuesday. “They’re long-armed guys that if they’re not getting to the passer, they’re going to try and jump up and tip the ball. Very athletic guys. It’s going to be very important for us to pass-protect well.”
According to STATS, Rodgers ranked No. 1 in the NFL in 2011 against the blitz with a 131.4 passer rating (85 of 125, 1,500 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions). He also led the NFL in passer rating against the blitz last season and was second in the NFL in the category in 2009. Over the past three seasons, Rodgers has been the NFL’s best quarterback against the blitz with a 114.7 passer rating.
“Defensively, I think it really starts with their group up front,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s a four-man line scheme and to run the scheme, you have to have the horses up front to run that type of scheme. … They’re healthy, and they’re going to put it on their down linemen to generate the pressure. They played a lot of two-shell, aggressive man under (coverage) in our first contest. Their secondary has a lot of experience in it. They have playmakers in their secondary. It’s a very veteran, experienced football team (with) a lot of veterans on defense. This will be an excellent challenge for us.”
It’ll be up to the Packers’ reassembled starting offensive line to negate that advantage. The starting fivesome – left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard T.J. Lang, center Scott Wells, right guard Josh Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga – is set to start its first game together since Bulaga went down with a knee injury in Week 3 in Chicago.
After that, sixth man Marshall Newhouse started at right tackle until Clifton’s Oct. 9 hamstring injury forced him to shift to left tackle. Bulaga returned the following week, but when Clifton returned to action for the regular-season finale against Detroit on Jan. 1, Bulaga was sidelined with a knee injury he’d suffered Dec. 18 in Kansas City.
“I love the way we’ve played the last couple weeks, doing the O-Line Shuffle out there,” Sitton said. “It’s awesome to see we can go play with a number of different guys at different positions.”
That said, the group is looking forward to getting the band back together. Clifton, who played 25 snaps against the Lions in the finale, figures to draw the most challenging assignment in Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who ranked fourth in the NFL in the regular season with 16.5 sacks and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro recognition.
“With Chad, I think it’s just a matter of getting out there, getting comfortable again, getting the mechanics down again,” offensive coordinator Joe Philibin said during the open week. “I don’t want to make it as simple as riding a bike, that you don’t forget – there’s a little more to it, just the timing of those things. And maybe working some twists with the guy next to you. Hopefully we can advance that. It kind of is what it is. There’s nothing much we can do. But I think we’re in good shape.”
Beyond Pierre-Paul, the Giants rotate a cadre of talented defensive linemen, including ends Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Dave Tollefson and tackles Linval Joseph, Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard. Of the Giants’ 48 sacks, 41.5 have come from defensive linemen.
Umenyiora missed the Packers’ 38-35 victory over the Giants on Dec. 4 at MetLife Stadium with an ankle injury, while Tollefson, a 2006 Packers seventh-round draft pick, and Tuck accounted for the Giants’ two sacks in that game. While Pierre-Paul didn’t have any sacks – his lone takedown was wiped out by a penalty – he was credited with three quarterback hits and six pressures while working primarily against Newhouse, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
The Packers can ill-afford to have Rodgers under duress all game long. If the line gives him time, the Giants are susceptible in the back end. New York ranked 29th in the 32-team league in passing yards allowed – only the New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and the league-worst Packers gave up more yardage through the air – and allowed Rodgers to complete 28 of 46 passes for 369 yards with four touchdowns and one interception (106.2 rating).
“Regardless of who we’re playing, that’s what we start with. Protection is important to our success,” Rodgers said. “Having the offensive line together that started the season for the first time in a long time, that’s going to be important. Having ‘Cliffy’ back and Bryan back, and the way the interior three are playing … I mean, T.J., Scott, and Josh have played excellent for us.
“Scotty’s probably been our most consistent lineman for the last three or four years and Josh, the last two or three has been right there with him. It’s been great having those guys. T.J.’s had an excellent season for us. So those three guys need to have a good game and stymie that rush up the middle and then the two guys off the edge need to slow up Pierre-Paul, and Tuck, and Osi and Dave down. Those guys flip-flop sides and move around a little bit so they’re going to face all of them, and they need to have success for us to be able to do what we want passing the ball.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.