Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Improving The Packers' Offensive Line

Overall, I was disappointed with the Green Bay Packers offensive line and thought they took a step back last season. However it's not obvious how they can improve either. While C Jeff Saturday didn't have as much left in the tank as the Packers expected and the team will again look for a new starting center, it was a step back for Lang and Bulaga too. Are they part of the problem or can we expect them to bounce back next season?

Here are the offensive line snaps from the Washington Post:
Lineman Games Started False Start Holding Sacks
Newhouse 16 1 2 10
Lang 15 1 2 11
Saturday 14 0 1 3.5
Dietrich-Smith 6 2 3 2
Sitton 16 1 3 2.5
Bulaga 9 2 3 5
Barclay 4 3 0 3.5
While LT Marshall Newhouse was second on the team with 10 sacks allowed, he actually improved last season. In 2011, he surrendered 11.5 sacks in 13 games starts and there were a couple games when he was just demolished by elite pass rushers (DE Jason Pierre-Paul is one example). He didn't have those awful games again in 2012; it was more of a slow trickle of sacks throughout the season and certainly some of those were due to the coverage. He's not an elite left tackle but he took a step forward last season.

LG T.J. Lang was the most disappointing lineman last season. He allowed 11 sacks in 2012, after only allowing 2.5 in 2011, though part of the problem was a temporary move to right tackle. However, he hasn't been the same since a poor playoff game against the Giants. I thought the extension he signed last summer was a good deal, but he hasn't earned that extension since then. I'm not ready to give up on him, it probably would save them nothing towards the salary cap to release him, but he's got to improve next season.

C Jeff Saturday wasn't awful in the passing game and C Evan Dietrich-Smith was arguably worse (2 sacks allowed in 6 games), but Saturday wasn't doing anything as a run blocker while Dietrich-Smith was better. Maybe part of Lang's high sack total can be blamed on Saturday, but trying to determine line blocking assignments is a guessing game. Neither one should be counted on as the starting center next season, and depending on what happens in the off-season, it's possible that neither will return in 2013.

RG Josh Sitton remains their best offensive lineman, but he isn't quite the elite player who allowed zero sacks in 2010. Injuries had something to do with his slight decline in 2011. Maybe 2010 was just a career year and 2012 was what we should expect from him in a typical season. He's scheduled to be paid like an elite guard for the next four seasons, so if he declines to less than a Pro Bowl level, he's not going to justify his contract anymore. However, he'll be worth it if he turns in 2012-like performances through 2016.

RT Bryan Bulaga. After a rough 2010 regular season (his first as a starter) he had an outstanding 2011 season with 11 starts, 3 penalties, and 1 sack allowed. Maybe durability is a concern since he's missed 13 games over the past two seasons. However, his 2012 stats look terrible, which was mostly due to a disastrous first half against the Seahawks when he allowed 3 sacks. He just wasn't himself in that game, but otherwise he was fine. After 2011, it looked like he was on the path towards becoming an outstanding, long-term solution on the offensive line. In 2013, he has to focus on staying healthy and regaining the form he showed in 2011.

RT Don Barclay was third on the team with 3.5 sacks allowed and led all offensive lineman in false start penalties, but some of that was to be expected because he's a rookie. He played better in later starts, and these stats don't show that he was an effective run blocker. I doubt he'll become a fixture on the offensive line, but he's a passable young starter (now with experience) who won't cost them a lot and will provide valuable depth for at least the next couple seasons.

How can the offensive line improve next season? The return of Bulaga to full health and an upgrade at center  are their top priorities. The Packers have some salary cap concerns so their next starting center is probably coming through the draft, but he probably can't be expected to become an immediate solution. Hopefully Lang will improve with a better center playing alongside him. It might take a little while, but the offensive line might become a solid unit by mid-season with a good draft pick and some good health in 2013.

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