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In The Middle Of The Fray

C WELLS MAKES PROTECTION CALLS, ADJUSTMENTS VITAL TO OFFENSIVE SUCCESS When the Packers break the huddle on offense and come up to the line, most of the attention is on QB Aaron Rodgers and anything he may yell out or signal - a check, an audible, the cadence - before the ball is snapped. But Rodgers’ offensive mates are paying just as much attention to another guy feeding them vital pre-snap information, and that’s C Scott Wells.



When the Green Bay Packers break the huddle on offense and come up to the line of scrimmage, most of the attention is on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and anything he may yell out or signal - a check, an audible, the cadence - before the ball is snapped.

But Rodgers' offensive mates are paying just as much attention to another guy feeding them vital pre-snap information, and that's center Scott Wells.

In the middle as the de facto captain of the offensive line, Wells is in charge of making the initial declaration of the pass protection scheme before every snap to the rest of the offense, including the linemen, tight ends and running backs. It's a call he makes based on the defensive front he sees, and one he can or must adjust depending on how the defense might shift, blitz, or otherwise change up its attack.

It's a part of his job that Wells, a sixth-year pro who has started 54 games at center over the past four seasons, is pretty darn good at, in part because he takes a very methodical approach to processing all the information in the short time he has to diagnose the defense pre-snap.

"I just follow my rules," Wells said. "We all have rules for each play and how we call out the protections. Looking at the front initially, you make an ID on that, and that sets everybody's blocking assignments. Then the adjustment comes by whatever the secondary shows as far as safety rotation, linebackers cheating, if they're giving anything away where they're lined up."

It sounds easy, but it's not. Take last week's game in Pittsburgh, where twice on the very first series, the Steelers blitzed two linebackers right up the middle and the Packers didn't pick it up very well. Rodgers took a big hit to the chin on one of them from linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and it looked like the Green Bay offense was going to be in for a long day.

But from there, Wells and the rest of the offense got the protection calls straightened out, and the unit went on to have a highly productive day, with Rodgers throwing for 383 yards - one yard shy of his career-high - and scoring five touchdowns in all.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy earlier this week credited Wells with a superb game in the declarations and communication of the pass protections, particularly after the early hiccups. Running back Brandon Jackson also had a standout game in blitz pick-ups, partly because Wells was able to keep the entire protection unit on the same page against Pittsburgh's aggressive defense.

"It's hard when they come out from the beginning and show pressure because you're not able to really see the tip during the game," Wells said. "You see it on film, but it's one thing to see it on film and another thing to see it in a game. We were able to make the adjustment, based on what they gave away on those two pressures, to be able to tell when it was coming again."

Wells' proficiency, combined with the stability and continuity that has developed by starting the same five linemen up front the past five games, has contributed greatly to the Packers' improved pass protection over the past month.

Rodgers has been sacked just seven times in the past five games, compared to 42 times in the first nine games. Early on, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said there were occasional mistakes with the communication, but most of the issues were with techniques and fundamentals in blocking, players losing one-on-one battles far too often.

Most of the time, a declaration or communication error results in what are referred to as "free hitters," or pass rushers who get a clear path to the quarterback. Unless the defense is rushing more players than the offense is keeping in to block, Wells' job is to set or adjust the pass protection to eliminate free hitters, and there have been very few, if any, of those during the second half of the season.

"He's been good at it for a long time," Philbin said. "A very conscientious player, a guy who's intelligent. At that position I think you need a guy, much like the quarterback down the middle, you need a guy up front that has a command of what's happening on the field and how they're lining up and what may happen based on the front and the alignment of the defensive backs even.

"He has a good grasp of the game, he understands it well. He knows what adjustments we might like to make based on what he sees, and he usually does a very, very effective job communicating that."

The communication can get tricky, though. Wells said he always communicates any pre-snap adjustments both verbally and visually - with hand signals - because a running back lined up in the backfield won't always hear a verbal command, particularly on the road in a noisy stadium.

But pointing and using hand signals can sometimes prompt the defense to call off a blitz, or call something else, if it feels the offense has figured out what it's doing. The chess match might continue right up to the snap, but that's where a player with Wells' experience helps.

Before being drafted by the Packers in 2004, Wells started 49 consecutive games at center for the University of Tennessee, and he spent two full seasons in the NFL before becoming a full-time starter at center in 2006. Wells started this season as a backup to Jason Spitz, who is now on injured reserve, but on Sunday against Seattle Wells will start his 13th game of the season at center, the fourth straight year with at least that many starts.

"Each year you play you gain experience and that's important," Wells said. "You have to be able to build from year to year. You have to be able to retain the knowledge of what you see and what you learn from that. I think my film study is improved from where it was three, four years ago, and that's helped me be able to recognize things."

{sportsad300}The coaching staff also plays a big part. Philbin said that during game preparation, running backs coach Edgar Bennett studies the opposing team's blitz packages, and then turns them over to offensive line coaches James Campen and Jerry Fontenot to draw up the protection schemes to stop them.

Extensive work is done in that regard before the players even take the practice field in a given week, and Wells said the benefit is that sometimes the blitz looks the offense sees in practice from the scout team end up more complicated than what they actually get in the game.

"The whole point is that to make it happen fast during practice so when you get in the game, it slows it down," Wells said. "You see it faster, you're able to make the adjustment, and you're not caught on your heels."

It's a team effort as well. Wells explained that he and Rodgers are constantly communicating during a game, both at the line of scrimmage and in the huddle. If Rodgers sees something from the defense that Wells doesn't, he can call out and signal the protection adjustment himself, and vice versa. The whole key is for everyone to know what the call is at the snap, so everyone knows what the player next to him is doing.

"It's really everybody on the field being on the same page, talking to each other, communicating, speaking up on what they see in the huddle as well," Wells said. "Like those first two plays (in Pittsburgh), when they brought the middle fire and we didn't pick it up ideally like you'd want to. When we got back in the huddle we said, 'Next time they bring this, this is what we're going to do.'

"It was everybody talking on it, so if somebody gets a tip and Aaron or I don't see it, they can pass it down and we make the adjustment."

The Steelers ended up getting just one sack last Sunday, and a couple more efforts in protection like that could go a long way toward helping the Packers secure an NFC playoff spot. Pittsburgh ultimately won the offensive shootout on the game's final play, but considering the caliber of the defense Green Bay was facing (Pittsburgh was ranked fourth in the league overall), the offensive performance was probably the Packers' best of the season, and now is when that's needed the most.

"Anytime you lose a game it's difficult to say you had a great game," Wells said. "For the passing attempts and the amount of pressures, you'd like to eliminate some of those hits and you'd love to have zero sacks. But we made strides in the right direction, and we're continuing to improve and build on the success we've had week in and week out."

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