GREEN BAY – Two games into the NFL regular season, the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line is showing why Mike McCarthy and his staff decided to make a drastic switch in May.
A season after quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times and the Packers’ running game ranked 20th in the league in rushing per game (106.4) and 22nd in yards per attempt (3.9), the Packers made the decision to move the teams’ “most accomplished offensive linemen” – tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton – over to the left side.
However, when Bulaga tore his anterior cruiate ligament in the Packers’ Family Night Scrimmage Aug. 3 and was put on season-ending injured reserve, the Packers decided on fourth-round draft pick David Bakhtiari to take over at left tackle.
Four months after the switch, the Packers’ offensive line is finding success in their new positions. Still, Sitton knows he and his teammates have more work to do.
“I definitely don’t feel 100 percent natural there yet,” Sitton said. “Throughout training camp I got to where I was feeling really good over there. Like I’ve said in the past, during practice you can think about your footwork and things like hand placement. You have time to think about it. Out on the field, everything is muscle memory, especially with as fast-paced as we play.
“That’s where natural reaction and some of the things aren’t 100 percent there yet. It’s close, and it’s starting to feel pretty good. I think it’s going to take some time. You do something for nine years on the other side, it takes a little while to get that muscle memory shifted over.”
Asked Thursday if, while disappointed that Bulaga was lost for the season, the Packers benefitted from the timing of his injury, McCarthy replied, “Yeah, any time a group has a chance to play together a long time it definitely helps you. It definitely helped David. David and Josh Sitton were able to develop a working relationship, familiarity, communication and all those things.”
Through two games, right guard T.J. Lang, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, Sitton, and right tackle Don Barclay have played all 137 of the Packers’ offensive snaps together. Bakhtiari has been in for all but three, when Marshall Newhouse came into Sunday’s game to take a knee for the game’s final snaps. As a line, the starting five have given up five sacks, two quarterback hits and 12 quarterback hurries.
Though the switch has been going well – certainly an improvement from last year – McCarthy pointed out on Wednesday that it is too early in the season to look at statistics and judge how the season will go.
“It’s only been two games. Statistics, at this point, I don’t think illustrate the characteristics or identity of your football team,” McCarthy said. “There’s certain things you go, ‘OK, I see that,’ but there’s certain statistics after two weeks that are pretty much an anomaly.”
When will the Packers know if this change was for the better?
“I think Week 4 or 5,” McCarthy replied. “I think after the first quarter you have a pretty good idea of whether you’re hitting the targets you intended to hit.”
The offensive line will continue to try to hit those targets on Sunday when they face a team who quarterback Aaron Rodgers said has “an excellent front four,” and Sitton said is the strength of their defense, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
“It’s a combination of strong guys inside who get a push and guys outside who can set the edge and rush with speed or power,” Rodgers said. “They’re eight deep on the line, are all high-energy, high-effort, tall, athletic, strong players.
Added Sitton: “They’re strong up front. That’s probably the strength of their defense is the front seven. A lot of experience, a lot of guys that played together in that system. Geno Atkins, he’s one of the best D-tackles in the league. That presents a challenge.”
The Packers have faced two straight 2013 playoff teams – the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins – to start the season, and face another in the Bengals on Sunday. Sitton acknowledged the challenge of playing three teams with good defensive lines, especially to open the season.
"Definitely a great challenge early in the season,” Sitton said. “We definitely have had a tough stretch and it's still coming up. You break your seasons down into quarters and this is definitely one of the toughest quarters of the season if you look at the whole thing.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.