Packers' Offensive Line Jells Despite Flanagan's Injury

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During the week of practice prior to the Carolina Panthers game, center Mike Flanagan gutted it out despite a painful hernia injury suffered earlier in the season. But even someone as tough as Flanagan knew the severity of his injury. He told his backup, Scott Wells, to be ready just in case.

"I don't know how long I'll be able to go," Flanagan told him.

Wells has prepared himself to be the starting center this week as well. The Packers have listed Flanagan as questionable, and he has not practiced this week.

Whenever Flanagan does return to action -- whether it's this week or not -- he will start ahead of Wells.

"Mike Flanagan is a more experienced center," head coach Mike Sherman said. "In my mind he still is a Pro Bowl-caliber center."

The offensive line has not surrendered a sack in the seven quarters since Wells replaced Flanagan in the first quarter of the Panthers game. Some observers have suggested that injuries have caught up to the 10-year-veteran. In addition to the hernia injury, Flanagan missed the first two years of his career with leg injuries, while knee surgery limited him to three games last year.

Sherman dismissed any speculation of injuries affecting Flanagan's play. He said the quarterback's delivery of the pass, the receivers' ability to separate from defenders and the offensive line's blocking all are factors in a team surrendering sacks.

"Pass protection is a collective effort," said Sherman, who served as an offensive line coach for Tulane, Holy Cross, Texas A&M, UCLA and the Packers.

That collective effort has improved as the new offensive line starters have become used to a new system and to each other.

"We're not letting guys go scott free. We know who to block. We're getting on guys," Sherman said. "They are making strides."

The two newcomers on the offensive line make greater strides with each passing week. Rookie right guard William Whitticker impressed the coaching staff with his ability to finish blocks at Michigan State where he led the team with 83 pancake blocks during his senior year. In the first few games Whitticker admitted he was thinking too much about making adjustments to the defensive front, which took away his aggressiveness.

"The less he's thinking about the assignment," Sherman said, "the more he can focus on finishing the play."

The offensive line's other newcomer, left guard Adrian Klemm, who played tackle during the majority of his professional and college career, has also become more comfortable in the Packers' offense. Klemm knew the plays but spent so much time processing the information that it limited the time he had to survey the defense before the snap. Now he knows the exact assignment of the player next to him.

"It's become second nature," Klemm said. "Now I can move a little quicker."

Second-year center Wells entered the starting lineup during the Panthers game. At 6-2, 304, Wells is smaller than the average NFL center, but he can rely on the leverage he honed as the nation's No. 1 heavyweight wrestler at Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy.

"He's able to get under guys and they can't get off him," Klemm said. "That makes him a force."

Wells could face an interesting defensive alignment on Sunday. The Vikings played a 4-3 defense through the first four weeks of the season but used some 3-4 looks against the Chicago Bears last weekend.

"It's tough because it's twice as much work you have to put in," Wells said. "You have to be prepared for twice as many defenses."

In the 3-4 alignment the Vikings move defensive tackle Kevin Williams to defensive end and add outside linebacker Raonall Smith to the starting lineup. Darrion Scott plays the right defensive end position in the 4-3.

To combat the different schemes, the Packers spent last week practicing against a four-man front before going against more three-man fronts this week.

"It does change things in terms of our preparation quite a bit," Sherman said. "We'll be prepared for both."

The Packers have the advantage of having played against the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots, two teams who employ a 3-4 scheme, during the preseason. They faced another 3-4 front from the Cleveland Browns in Week Two of the regular season.

"We've prepared for 3-4 teams already and played them in the preseason," Wells said, "so we feel pretty comfortable."

And the Packers have the comfort of knowing whoever occupies the center position can handle the different alignments.

"Flanny's missed when you have someone with as much experience as he has," Klemm said. "But at the same time, Scott's a very good player."

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