Sunday, August 24, 2008

Front and Center: Interior Lines Cause for Concern

Back in the early 1990’s, there was a catchphrase that seemed to sum up the week-to-week fortunes of the Green Bay Packers. Perhaps you all remember it:

“As Favre goes, so go the Packers…”

Fast-forward around fifteen years, and there is no longer a Brett Favre to pin the fortunes of our team on. But, interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to be placed on his successor, Aaron Rodgers, either. Rodgers isn’t the kind of quarterback that elevates the level of play around him (as evidenced by the shocking number of dropped passes this offseason) or negates it, either.

After catching up and watching all three preseason games played by the Packers, I’ve developed a new catchphrase that I doubt will catch on, but nevertheless has the ring of truth in it.

“As the interior lines go, so go the Packers…”

The Packers have had a roller coaster preseason thus far, with both offense and defense showing holes, particularly along the line of scrimmage. Injuries have certainly played their part, but so has a lack of development of many of the players drafted by Ted Thompson to shore up those squads.

The interior line is critical to the play on the field, and why I supported Thompson’s rebuilding approach to address the lines first and foremost in his first couple of years. No matter how the game has evolved, the game is still won up front.

The exterior line players are the sexy positions, with high-paid, high-profile athletes. Defensive ends are paid to tear around the line and get quarterback sacks. Offensive tackles are paid to prevent those DE’s from getting them.

But, it is the unsung heroes in the middle of the line, the defensive tackles and offensive guards and centers who really make the team hum. The sack, in my long-standing opinion, is the most overrated statistic in football. I would trade all my defensive sacks for consistent pressure, hurries, and knockdowns on the quarterback. Give me Aaron Kampman's consistency over KGB's once-in-a-while sack any day.

But, most importantly, the establishment of a running game is won or lost in the middle of the line, and right now, the Packers are struggling to not only get their own running game off the ground, but they are struggling to stop the opposing team’s rushers, too.

The hammer comes down on Ted Thompson, who has been building both interior lines almost entirely through the draft, and now is expected to have those investments pay off.

Offensive Line

One of the most overlooked traits Brett Favre brought to an offense was his excellent pressure awareness and evasion. While he certainly couldn’t be considered a “mobile quarterback” (his scrambles often looked painful), he was excellent at making small adjustments to the side or up in the pocket to avoid the rush. Combined with his tendency to get rid of the ball quickly, our offensive line often was praised for its pass protection simply based on the number of sacks allowed (only 19 last year).

Again, the sack is the most overrated statistic in football, and unfortunately, it is the only official statistic available to measure the effectiveness of an offensive line’s pass protection (hurries and such are all unofficial and subjective). So, for the past few years, our line has sometimes gotten credit where it hasn’t been due.

In the game against the 49ers, the problems with the line became more evident, especially with Rodgers and the rookie backups, who don’t have the pressure awareness of their predecessor. Much of the pressure in that game came through the middle, as the guards and centers struggled against the rush.

In the three preseason games, the Packers have allowed ten sacks of their quarterbacks, including six on Rodgers. The Packers allowed just nineteen sacks over the entire sixteen game season in 2007.

Furthermore, starting running back Brandon Jackson, after a nice first game against the Bengals, has rushed for only 29 yards in 11 attempts since, a miserable average that doesn’t bode well for an offense that needs a running game to take the pressure off of young quarterbacks.

Certainly, injuries play a part. Starting center Scott Wells, a holdover from the Mike Sherman era, hasn’t played much at all this preseason. But since Thompson unceremoniously dismissed guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle before the 2005 season started, he has invested a high number of draft picks in the interior guard position, and nary a free agent.

In 2005, he drafted Junius Coston and Wil Whittaker in the 5th and 7th round, respectively. Coston has struggled with injuries and made some lackluster starts, but remains on the roster as a reserve. Whittaker was a young player who started much of the 2005 season and was released the subsequent offseason.

In 2006, he drafted three interior linemen to compensate for the debacle of 2005: Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll. Colledge has started and been incredibly inconsistent. He is now being moved along the line to find a spot where he can have success. Spitz has shown perhaps the most promise of the three, but has struggled at times playing center for the injured Wells. Moll has started at times, but like Colledge, hasn’t found his stride entering his third season.

In 2007, Thompson drafted Allen Barbre in the fourth round, and while he has shown promise, he has yet to stay healthy enough to crack the starting lineup. He’s been a sub both at guard and at tackle.

In 2008, spent a fourth rounder on Josh Sitton, who amusingly enough, has started every preseason game at guard this August (a bleak reflection on all the other players just mentioned that were expected to develop by this point). Unfortunately, Sitton was injured in the last game against the Broncos, and if this rookie was the most promising guard we had going, it doesn’t bode well if his injury is going to take him out for an extended period of time. Even if he is able to come back, a rookie guard is still going to need as much development time on the field as possible.

Since Thompson took over as GM, he has signed only street free agents to help out along the line, and none of those players (such as Adrien Klemm and Tony Palmer) are still around.

As the Packers look to solidify a line for less pressure-aware quarterbacks, it is evident that some of these draft picks are going to have to develop into more than just bodies in a lineup. Unfortunately, players like Coston, Colledge, Moll, Whittaker, and Barbre are looking more like busts than hits for Thompson , and that doesn’t bode well for a general manager who builds almost exclusively through the draft.

While I don’t throw any darts at Thompson for letting Wahle and Rivera go, he takes full accountability for being unable to suitably replace them. Struggling to find interior linemen in his fourth season as GM, with $24 million in salary cap space is a glaring black mark.

You can’t say he hasn’t tried to address the position. He has invested a lot of draft picks in the interior line. But, bottom line is what counts, and at this point, those picks haven’t become the solid starters, much less impact players, that they need right now.

Defensive Line

The interior defensive line has probably been addressed more adequately by Thompson over his tenure, but thanks to injuries and other factors, it is just as precarious a squad as the OL.

Like the offensive side of the ball, the Packers have some solid (if unspectacular) bookends for the line: Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton man the offensive tackle spots, and Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins man the defensive end spots. But, it is the middle of the line that is struggling right now.

While many are praising the flexibility of players such as Jenkins and Michael Montgomery to move inside and play the tackle position, it is far from an ideal situation. They are forced to play inside to accommodate for the lack of talented bodies to shuffle in the interior line, forcing those two to play extra downs out of position instead of focusing on their own.

Thompson did actually make one of his rare free agent splashes back in 2005 along the defensive line, signing Ryan Pickett from the Rams. However, it is Pickett’s injury that seems to be wreaking the most chaos, as his consistent presence is missing and seems to have taken the anchor out of the entire line.

Also looming large is the loss of tackle Corey Williams, who left the Packers this offseason in a sign-and-trade that looked smart at the time, but now makes us wish we might have kept Williams instead of that second round draft pick we received for him. At the time, it was thought that the Packers had a deep defensive line and could easily absorb the loss.

Two players that the Packers were hoping would develop into full-time starters, Johnny Jolly and Colin Cole, have struggled with injuries, personal issues, and their play on the field.

Furthermore, the head-scratching pick of Justin Harrell in the first round of the 2007 draft has been essentially labeled a bust, as the oft-injured player in college as become an oft-injured professional in the NFL. This is huge, because it was assumed that Harrell was going to develop this season, and could start the season on the PUP list.

Why sign or draft another premier defensive lineman when you just invested a first rounder at the position a year ago? Right?

All of this adds up to unknown player names like Muir and Malone manning the middle of the defensive line, when not being substituted for by the defensive ends. Adding to the problems is the injury status of pass-rushing specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia. The line is far from the deep unit we thought we would have.

And the results are clear. The Packers did not generate a sack against the 49ers or the Bengals. In those two games, they have also allowed 249 yards to the opposing rushing attack. Frank Gore averaged 4.8 yards on the ground, and Selvin Young averaged seven.

What appeared last year at this time as perhaps the strongest unit on the Packers has now become a liability, simply put.

Bottom Line

The Packers were just as lucky as they were good last season, dealing with very few injuries as they went along their way to a 13-3 record. And, what injuries they did have, they were able to adequately deal with.

However, the injury bug has already hit harder this preseason than the entire 2007 regular season, with key injuries on both sides of the ball. Some of that is simply luck. But, it is the ability to adequately deal with those injuries that matters, and that's done by having the right guys ready and able in the wings.

Ted Thompson is entering his fourth year as general manager and is the reigning NFL GM of the Year. He still has $24 million in available salary cap space and really has few players on the roster worth extending. A rash of injuries makes any team look bad, but so can missing in the draft and eschewing free agency when squads are in need of impact players.

The game is won in the trenches, and no matter how many great receivers we have on this team, a lack of a running game and proper pass protection is going to hurt our offense greatly. No matter what a fine group of linebackers and cornerbacks we have, it isn’t going to matter if the defensive line can’t generate pressure on the quarterback or contain the first line of defense against starting running backs.

While all eyes seem to be on Aaron Rodgers this season, they really should be on the interior of both lines, because they will, more than any other variable, dictate the success the Packers will have in 2008.

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