The Green Bay Packers offensive line knows they must stop or slow the San Francisco defensive rush enough for Aaron Rodgers to do his job.
NFL: Packers know they must hold the line against 49ers
Milk bottles in fairgrounds are meant to be knocked down, MVP quarterbacks are not.
The Green Bay Packers' offensive line have had their hands full this season as they have tried, often unsuccessfully, to keep Aaron Rodgers from looking like a tackling dummy, and it does not look likely to get any easier in Saturday night's NFC divisional game in San Francisco against the 49ers.
The 49ers' front seven are one of the most brutish in the NFL, and just the sight of Aldon Smith or Justin Smith is enough to make a quarterback wince.
"It's going to be key for us to play our best here to date," said TJ Lang, the Packers left guard. "We understand that it's going to be up to us to keep Aaron clean, [and] let him make some plays back there in the pocket. That's going to be a huge factor in how this game turns out."
Rodgers is the Packers' most precious commodity, the reigning league MVP and one of the finest quarterbacks of his generation.
The Packers (12-5) will only go as far as he takes them, so keeping him upright is a priority. Yet Rodgers was sacked an NFL-high 51 times during the regular season.
That is almost twice as many sacks as New England's Tom Brady took (27) and 30 more than Denver's Peyton Manning.
But that number, ugly as it may be, does not quite tell the whole story.
"Is it something that they're proud of? No. Of course not," said James Campen, the Packers' offensive line coach. "I'll just say this - those guys have made a lot of improvements and corrected the mistakes that got to those situations of giving up a sack or having a bad run. There's a lot of things that you could say, 'Well, there's 51 sacks'. But does that mean they're a bad line? Absolutely not, because there's a lot of other things that can factor into that."
Part of what makes Rodgers so special is his ability to turn a broken play into a big gain by getting outside the pocket and waiting until he finds an open man and throwing on the run.
It has resulted in countless dazzling plays and left many a defensive player shaking his head in wonder as he trudges down the field for the next snap.
But it can also leave Rodgers vulnerable. The more time he takes, the more chances a lineman or linebacker has to chase him down.
"Your mentality, when you're blocking for him, is make sure you stay engaged," Lang said. "You can't have a time clock in your head, thinking the ball might be gone. You've got to stay locked up with those guys, match their effort. As long as they're moving, you're moving to try to stay in front of them.
"Whenever we do that, we give Aaron some time, he tends to make a lot of big plays. That's definitely something that we work on a lot and we try to make sure we're good at."
But the bigger challenge in protecting Rodgers - this season, at least - has been consistency. Or a lack of it. With a new centre in Jeff Saturday and Marshall Newhouse in his first season as the full-time starter at left tackle, the Packers were clearly out of sync early on.
Rodgers was sacked 16 times in the first three games and 21 times in the first five. No coincidence the Packers began the season 2-3.
Just as the line found its rhythm, the right tackle Bryan Bulaga was lost to a season-ending hip injury on November 4. Over the next six weeks, the Packers would use four different starting combinations on the offensive line, including the rookie free agent Don Barclay at right guard.
"It's a hard thing to do," said Josh Sitton, the right guard. "I had to do it as a rookie, be the sixth man on the O-line, and having to come in and not knowing you're going to be in, not knowing when you're going to play and then finally getting your chance, it's a tough thing to do."
And yet, the Packers have found stability among the chaos. Evan Dietrich-Smith, whom Rodgers has been touting as the Packers' future centre, replaced Saturday in the starting line-up on December 23, and it looks as if he has been playing the position for years. Barclay has grown with each week, and he has drawn rave reviews from everyone from Rodgers to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.
The line's improvement is evident in the entire offence. Rodgers was taken down only 14 times over the past five weeks.
"We definitely know that this week's going to be a huge challenge for us," Lang said. "But I think we're ready for that challenge and we're excited about it."
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