Recent history says the Packers have reached a critical juncture in the season with regards to their pass-protection.
Two years ago, the Packers allowed 12 sacks through the season's first three games, and the leaks ruptured into an eight-sack debacle in Week 4, with the figure climbing all the way to a debilitating 41 through nine games, 51 in all. That tied for the third-worst single-season total in franchise history.
Last year at this time, all appeared fixed, with just three sacks allowed through three games, including consecutive no-sack games in Weeks 2 and 3. Then, however, came a deluge of 11 sacks over the next three games, leading to another unacceptable regular-season total of 38. Improvement, but not enough.
This year, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said before the season started he'd like to see the season sack total drop below 20. While that might sound like pie-in-the-sky thinking relative to the last two years, keep in mind that the Packers have achieved a sub-20 number three times with Philbin on the offensive staff (2003, '04, '07).
The status update for 2011 thus far? Five.
"Five is too many," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Thursday.
McCarthy wasn't being overly harsh, though. He prefaced that comment with several compliments for his offensive linemen and coaches. He called the players "sharp" in terms of seeing how defenses are attacking them, and adjusting as needed on a series-by-series or snap-by-snap basis.
Five sacks through three games have put the Packers on pace to allow between 25 and 30 this season, so Philbin's goal is within reach if things improve. But as last year showed, there are also no guarantees. McCarthy's "too many" comment on Thursday reflects a mentality that a team can never feel as though it has it all figured out, not with the complexity of NFL defenses these days.
"Our players are at a different level as far as their expertise and understanding," McCarthy said. "We're playing faster in that phase."
Most important to McCarthy is that for the amount of time and energy spent on pass-protection schemes, he's seeing more often than not how it's supposed to look on game day.
"Overall, there are pictures of us doing great pass-protection throughout the whole unit – the line, tight ends, the running backs, everybody," left guard T.J. Lang said. "It's something that we're taking more pride in this year. We know what kind of burden we've had over the last couple of years with that number, and we want to do everything in our power to keep it down."
While Lang agreed that five sacks is too many so far, he feels quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn't taken too many bad or unnecessary hits, and the unit is off to a strong start. If Denver gets pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil back from injury this week to pair with first-round draft pick Von Miller, the Broncos will pose a legitimate challenge to the Packers in that area.
Lang was the one new starter added to the front five in 2011, with right tackle Bryan Bulaga – who may be replaced this week by Marshall Newhouse if his knee injury doesn't heal in time – the lone new starter a year ago. Adding Lang to the mix has been a fairly smooth transition, much as it was with Bulaga last season.
"I think it's just guys taking pride in winning their one-on-one battles," Lang said. "It's a matter of us having a mature group, an older group on offense. The chemistry is there between Aaron and the receivers, and up front we know when we give Aaron time, what kind of plays he's going to make. That was clear throughout the first three games."
Perhaps, the biggest area of concern up front thus far has been jumping the gun. The offensive linemen and tight ends have been called for nine false starts through three games, including five at Soldier Field last week.
McCarthy has always labeled pre-snap penalties as "inexcusable" and is pushing to get that cleaned up, too.
"Last week in practice we didn't have any pre-snap penalties the whole week, and then in the game they're popping up all over the place," said Lang, who has four of the false starts through three games. "It's a thing you have to take individually, make sure you're putting the extra focus in, the extra attention to not hurt the offense and go backwards."
Neal update: Defensive end Mike Neal spoke to reporters on Thursday for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on the knee he injured during training camp on Aug. 16.
He said he's hoping to get to a "pain-free" stage around the bye week, which would be about six weeks removed from the surgery, and then begin accelerating his rehab to get ready to play. Neal had the surgery two weeks ago.
Originally, Neal said the medical staff was hoping the knee would heal on its own, because multiple MRIs revealed no structural damage. When it wasn't healing properly, the scope was recommended, and the procedure fixed a cartilage issue, Neal said.
He's still hoping to be able to play a good portion of the season, but he's not in position to target a specific game to return. He said when he does come back, he doesn't plan on wearing any sort of brace on his knee because he doesn't want to draw attention to it.
"I won't need a brace. No limitations," he said. "If I'm coming back, I'm coming back 100 percent." Additional coverage - Sept. 29