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Training Camp Report: Offensive Line Responds To Early Pressure

Considering the single biggest negative attached to the Packers’ record-setting offense in 2009 was the number of sacks allowed, the Cleveland Browns probably did Green Bay a favor by blitzing as much as they did in the preseason opener last Saturday.


They challenged the Packers' protection schemes right off the bat and the starting unit passed the test, not allowing a sack of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 13 pass attempts and producing two consecutive touchdown drives.

"I thought the protection was good," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "That was a big area we wanted to get off to a great start, protecting the quarterback, and I think for the most part that group did that. I think overall it was a solid start.

"I think it's good (to face that). I don't know that we've seen that much (blitzing). I've been here seven years, going on eight, and there was a lot of blitzing going on that game."

The Packers' protection issues last year began immediately in the regular-season opener against the Bears. Right tackle Allen Barbre struggled in his first NFL start as Mark Tauscher's replacement, and the sack problem only got worse when left tackle Chad Clifton went down with an ankle injury in Week 2, forcing a shuffling of positions.

Once the Packers were able to establish their best starting five – Clifton at left tackle, Daryn Colledge at left guard, Scott Wells at center, Josh Sitton at right guard and Tauscher at right tackle – the protection solidified. That group allowed only 10 sacks over the final seven regular-season games, as opposed to the 41 sacks allowed in the first nine.

That's the same group that has served as the No. 1 line through training camp thus far, and it showed against Cleveland that it was picking up where it left off. Rookie first-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga is challenging Colledge for the starting left guard spot, but there's no indication any of the other four jobs are even up for debate.

After Ryan Grant's fumble on the offense's opening play, the linemen weren't asked to do a whole lot of run blocking against the Browns. On the ensuing three drives, with Bulaga and Colledge rotating at left guard, the Packers passed on 13 of 19 plays, and despite a handful of blitzes, Rodgers didn't take any hits.

 "I thought they graded out well," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of the first line's play. "They came after us with a lot of pressure, so there were a number of things that happened at the line of scrimmage as far as the communication. I thought the quarterback handled it very well. I thought the checks were intact."

The play that prevented the Packers from potentially scoring three straight touchdowns was a blitz, which forced Rodgers to throw hot to Donald Driver, but short of the first down. Still, that's better than taking a sack or having the quarterback take a big hit.

Whether or not the Packers will see similar challenges in Seattle this Saturday remains to be seen. The Seahawks have a new head coach this year in Pete Carroll, and they've played just one preseason game so far, against Tennessee last weekend.

"They didn't blitz a whole lot last week, so maybe this is their blitz week," McCarthy said. "I think when you put in a new defense, it kind of comes that way.  They played it very basic defensively against Tennessee. There wasn't a whole lot of pressure. So maybe they'll work exclusively on their pressure packages, which is fine. I think it's great work for us."

McCarthy added that the playing time for the starting units in Saturday's game would be similar to the first preseason game, which means roughly 20 snaps for the No. 1 offense.

Philbin also likes to see the line get that kind of work early, and when the protection remains sound in the face of that pressure, Green Bay's offense becomes that much more explosive.

"In the passing game, it just opens up … all the windows are bigger," Philbin said. "That's provided, obviously, if you pick up the blitzes. If you don't … it's not as good."

On the mendSafety Atari Bigby is scheduled to get the stitches from his surgically repaired ankle removed in a couple of days, at which point he'll be starting more meaningful rehab. Bigby had the surgery nearly two weeks ago, but the timetable for his return is uncertain.

"I've been hearing from four weeks to eight weeks," Bigby said of the overall recovery time. "But I think I'm doing pretty good right now. I'm walking around fine. I have to get it a little stronger. We'll see what happens."

If the recovery requires closer to eight weeks, the Packers may consider putting him on the physically unable to perform list to start the regular season. That would force him to sit out the first six games, and he wouldn't count as a member of the 53-man roster. Bigby is eligible for the regular-season PUP list because he began training camp on PUP and hasn't practiced yet.

Bigby called that potential scenario "very disappointing" should it come to pass. But considering he missed the entire offseason program as an unsigned restricted free agent and will be missing all of training camp, it may be difficult to hold an opening-day roster spot for him unless it's clear he'll be back shortly after the final roster cutdown on Sept. 4.

Bigby's ankle injury dates back to the 2008 season, and this latest procedure was to remove scar tissue that was restricting his movement. Rookie third-round draft pick Morgan Burnett has taken all the reps with the No. 1 defense at safety alongside Pro Bowler Nick Collins.

Bigby hopes when he returns he'll be able to play pain-free, which hasn't been the case for the past two years.

"Hopefully we got it straightened out now," he said. "My plan is to get back as fast and as safe as possible."

Injury/participation update
Linebacker A.J. Hawk was added to the injury report with a sprained ankle. He injured the ankle toward the end of the morning practice and then sat out in the evening. McCarthy said he would be evaluated further on Friday to determine his availability for the game.

Center/guard Evan Dietrich-Smith returned to the practice field on Thursday morning for the first time this week. He sprained his neck in the preseason opener last Saturday.

Defensive end Justin Harrell, who missed Tuesday's workouts with tightness in his back, was excused for both workouts Thursday for a personal matter. McCarthy said he had been scheduled to practice. Whether or not Harrell would be traveling with the team to Seattle remained to be determined on Friday, McCarthy said.

Thursday morning's workout was another "vet select" practice that allowed the team's most senior members to take the morning off. They were cornerback Charles Woodson, linebackers Brandon Chillar and Nick Barnett, center Scott Wells, defensive ends Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett, tight end Donald Lee, and Tauscher, Clifton and Driver.

All of them were back for the evening practice, along with safety Derrick Martin (ankle) and wide receiver Brett Swain (knee), who have been on a one-a-day schedule and sat out in the morning.

Safety Will Blackmon (knee) and defensive end Ronald Talley (knee), also on one-a-day schedules, practiced in the morning but sat out in the evening.

Continuing to sit out due to injury were running back Kregg Lumpkin (hamstring), linebackers Alex Joseph (quad) and Clay Matthews (hamstring), and the three PUP players – Bigby, cornerback Al Harris (knee) and running back James Starks (hamstring).

Woodson and receiver Donald Driver were taking some scout team reps rather than first unit reps on Thursday evening, an indication they may not play in Saturday's game. McCarthy said resting them was under consideration.

Odds & endsIn case you missed the link Wednesday in our Training Camp Blog, there was a neat story on about former Packers defensive end Vonnie Holliday. Now with Washington, Holliday was reunited recently with his Green Bay training camp "bike kid," who now works for the Baltimore Orioles. Click here for the full story.

Also, Saturday night's Packers-Seahawks game will be televised live on NFL Network beginning at 9 p.m. CT. At halftime, the network is scheduled to air a promotional spot for the upcoming Broadway play "Lombardi," which is based on David Maraniss' biography of legendary coach Vince Lombardi entitled "When Pride Still Mattered."

The play, which officially opens Oct. 22 (previews beginning Sept. 21), stars actor Dan Lauria from the television series "The Wonder Years" as Lombardi and Judith Light as his wife Marie.

Aug. 19 - Additional coverage

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