GREEN BAY – Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton had to watch.
They didn’t necessarily want to, and they knew how the horror movie would end, but the Green Bay Packers right tackle and right guard – along with the rest of the team’s offensive linemen – stayed late Monday afternoon to watch the film of last year’s 7-3 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
And afterward, Bulaga delivered a harsh review that Siskel & Ebert wouldn’t have unleashed on even the biggest clunker.
“We did not play well. Didn’t do anything well, really. It was just a poorly played game. That may be a nice way of putting it, too,” Bulaga said Monday, when the offensive linemen were the last position group to emerge from meetings and enter the locker room for the media availability session.
“If you go back and watch the game like we just did, you’re looking going, ‘Gosh, what are we doing there?’ That wasn’t us. We just did not do anything well. We obviously cleaned it up later on in the season, got hot and went on a run (to the Super Bowl XLV title), but that game, there wasn’t much that went right.”
For the Packers (10-0) to beat the upstart Lions (7-3) and extend Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day losing streak to eight straight games Thursday at Ford Field, the group can ill afford to make as many mistakes as it did during its last visit.
“Last year’s game, their D-line played well and we didn’t play as well up front,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged. “It’s something we can learn from. You pay more attention to what they’re doing on defense (this year) and the personnel matchups and the tendencies of the individuals. But, yeah, it definitely factored in the game last year.”
It all started on the game’s second offensive play, when durable left guard Daryn Colledge went down with a knee injury. McCarthy went to Jason Spitz as his replacement, but the rusty Spitz – who was never the same player after a 2009 back injury – struggled mightily and was benched in favor of T.J. Lang, who is now the starter at left guard following Colledge’s free-agent departure.
The biggest play of the game came late in the second quarter, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers scrambled and eschewed a safe slide and instead took a hit that resulted in his second concussion of the season. Rodgers stayed in for three more snaps before being diagnosed and giving way to backup Matt Flynn, but it didn’t matter. The offense didn’t muster any points before Rodgers’ concussion, and the line’s struggles only intensified.
For the game, Packers quarterbacks were sacked three times and hit eight times overall. The running game went nowhere – 15 carries for 31 yards by running backs Brandon Jackson, James Starks and Dimitri Nance – and the Lions finished with six total tackles for loss. The line was charged with three penalties. The Packers’ 3-point output was their fewest points in a game since they were shut out twice in 2006, McCarthy’s first year as coach. It also marked the only time in 10 games that the Lions have beaten a McCarthy-coached Packers team.
And it all began – and ended – with the offensive line’s play.
"I think we understand it starts up front, across the board,” said running back Ryan Grant, who missed last year’s game with the season-ending ankle injury he suffered in the opener but could see extended playing time with Starks having suffered knee and ankle sprains Sunday against Tampa Bay.
“That trench warfare is going to be legit. (The Lions) are solid, and they're playing hard, they're playing together, they're playing with tempo and speed, which they should be. It's a great challenge for us. But I think we're up for it."
They’d better be. While the Packers’ offense (and Rodgers in particular) has been phenomenal through 10 games – the Packers lead the NFL in scoring (35.5 points per game) and rank fourth in total offense (406.5 yards per game) – Rodgers is tied for having taken the fourth-most sacks in the NFL (25), and while second-year lineman Marshall Newhouse has filled in admirably for injured veteran Chad Clifton at left tackle, the Lions’ front figures to present the season’s biggest challenge.
Even if Sitton doesn’t think it matters.
"It's not about them, necessarily. I'd say our fundamentals, as an offensive line, weren't great in that game. We've got to start from within," said Sitton, who’ll once again draw the toughest one-on-one assignment with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. "We'll see Thursday. That's why we play the game, you know? But I'm going to go back to it: It's not about them, it's about us."
That said, the Lions front four of Suh and ex-Packers defensive tackle Corey Williams inside and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril outside does pose a somewhat unique threat. Not only have they tallied a combined 16.5 sacks, but they’ve done it employing a scheme that the Packers haven’t seen much of this year.
If you’ve seen any of the Lions’ or Philadelphia Eagles’ games on television this year, you’ve undoubtedly heard about how each team’s ends line up in something called a “Wide 9” technique, where they are so far outside that, as Bulaga explained it, the ends would be outside of a tight end if one lined up next to Bulaga on the right side.
“Especially in a loud environment like it is there, you’ve got to be able to get out and get some depth so (the defensive end) doesn’t have an easy edge to get around (you),” Bulaga explained. “It gives that defensive end a good opportunity to do a three-way go on you – if you under-set him, he’s going to go around you; if you over-set him, he can go inside real quick; or, he can get a full head of steam and bull-rush you. So you really have to be sound with your sets and fundamentals when you’re playing that type of technique because they approach it in a different way.”
The Packers’ offensive line, meanwhile, just hopes their approach leads to a different outcome.
“We’re a confident group of guys, and we just have to go out and play our game and execute,” Bulaga said. “It’s going to be intense. It’s a big game, two very good football teams playing on Thanksgiving. It’s a big game, and I think both teams are going to be ready to go.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.