Packers’ Saturday out to center his bearings
By Tom Silverstein, Journal-Sentinel
~GREEN BAY – When he arrives with the Green Bay Packers to Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday in Indianapolis, center Jeff Saturday should feel right at home.
The 37-year-old Saturday played 13 seasons with the Colts, the last four under the roof of the 63,000-seat domed palace he and former teammates helped build. The 70 or so friends and family for whom he has bought tickets should provide even more comfort.
Back at his new home, the one for which he planted roots last March after signing a two-year, $7.75 million free agent contract, Saturday is still a visitor of sorts. Personally, it took no time for him to blend into the fabric of a Packers team one year removed from a Super Bowl championship, but professionally the assimilation is still going on.
Saturday played in a completely different offensive system in Indianapolis. It had different terminology and different ways of adjusting to defensive looks. It featured a different quarterback using a different system of communication.
“Football-wise, it’s taken some getting used to,” Saturday said as the Packers prepared to play the Colts Sunday. “I’m still learning. Each and every week you’re still piecing the thing together. It was interesting how that kind of plays out.”
The next three weeks are going to be critical because the Packers are going on a three-game road trip with two of the games – Indianapolis and St. Louis – played in a dome and the other – Houston – played in an indoor/outdoor venue where game-time weather conditions determine whether the roof will be closed.
One thing is for sure: The Packers can’t perform in those places as they did in Seattle two weeks ago.
Coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers pride themselves on being able to go into a loud, hostile environment and function almost as though they were at home. They stormed to a Super Bowl two years ago with victories at Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago in the playoffs.
They are 16-9 in their last 25 road games, including 7-2 in their last nine. They are 9-4 in dome games since 2009.
To go to Seattle and be as affected as they were by the noise is out of character, even if they were playing in arguably the loudest venue in the NFL. Giving up eight sacks in the first half made it seem as though they hadn’t ever played in front of a crowd.
Rodgers said a few days after the loss: “I think half of it had to be the noise. There was miscommunication on two or three of the sacks where half the line thinks it’s a four-man slide and the other half thinks it’s a three-man slide.”
Pinning the offense’s futility against the Seahawks on Saturday wouldn’t be fair or accurate.
However, it does reflect the transition the Packers are going through after six years with Scott Wells at center. Wells became a starter in 2006, two years before Rodgers took over the offense, and by the time the two came together they were already well-schooled in coach Mike McCarthy’s system.
Despite experience playing a fast-tempo, no-huddle offense like the Packers’, Saturday just doesn’t have the same time in with Rodgers and the offense. So when he identifies certain looks before the snap, his take on how to adjust the protection might not be the same as Rodgers’.
The same goes for the offensive linemen, who rely on him to make line calls as well as communicate with them when nobody can hear a thing.
“Things are a lot different,” right guard Josh Sitton said. “I think there’s a little more going on maybe than he was used to over there (in Indianapolis). All that is part of growing as a line together.
“We’ve made it a point of emphasis: Get better at communication. A lot of that is on the guards. If he has his head between his legs, he can’t see when there are adjustments and things like that. It puts a lot of stress on the guards to make those calls.”
Nevertheless, the center is the conductor and he has to make sure the line blocks the way Rodgers wants it. Saturday said he simply does not have the catalog of plays with Rodgers to react naturally when a defense gives a look that wasn’t covered much in practice.
“You can’t give (someone) five years of experience no matter who it is,” Saturday said. “It just doesn’t work like that. You can’t go, ‘Remember when we played Baltimore in ’07 and they did this look?’
“That’s what offensive linemen and quarterbacks can do so often. That’s the experience. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve played, you can’t go back to when you weren’t there.”
What’s more, with a silent count, there is a timing and rhythm to the center snap that everyone must get used to, especially since they can’t hear any signals. The Packers don’t divulge exactly how their silent count works, but it’s clear they developed a comfort zone with Wells and are still getting used to Saturday.
The Seattle game was the Packers’ first this season using the silent count with Saturday, so it’s not surprising there were some miscommunications. As a result and the fact the Colts have two fast outside rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, McCarthy has adjusted practice this week.
“You’re playing in a dome on a fast surface with crowd noise,” McCarthy said. “Those are all the things that we’re preparing for. In the past, we really used to not get into crowd noise until Thursday and Friday, but we’re doing it from Wednesday all the way through because these guys definitely are special on the edge.
“It’s something that we are focused on.”
For Saturday, the Colts game will be a nice ride down memory lane, but hearing the cheers of appreciation from the crowd won’t be acknowledged until after the game. During it, he’ll be busy trying to communicate with his new friends.
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