GREEN BAY, Wis. — Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera and Mark Tauscher were so good in 2003, they helped the Green Bay Packers gain 5,798 total yards on offense and 442 points — at the time, the second-most in team history.
Running back Ahman Green churned out a franchise-best 1,883 yards — most ever for the Packers — and every other running back got his too, the lot of them averaging a whopping 5.05 yards a rush.
And this wasn’t just a run-blocking line. In cooperation with quarterback Brett Favre’s elusiveness, that offensive line only gave up 19 sacks, a franchise record for a 16-game season.
The whole operation was a credit to the coaches and those five players. But something else happened too:
All five offensive linemen started at their position for all 16 games.
“Wow, really?” said current right tackle Bryan Bulaga. “Even Cliffy?”
Really. Tauscher said it was highly unusual for a line to accomplish that for a whole season but that the benefits were almost endless.
“It helps a lot,” Tauscher said. “When you’ve been playing next to the same center or guard, you have a pretty good feel of how you’re going to reach block or what to do on a combination block. When you’re passing off stunts, you’re going to know how they like to pass the stunts off. It makes it easier.”
From left tackle to right tackle, Marshall Newhouse, T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday, Josh Sitton and Bulaga have played the first four games of the season, rendering the only two backup offensive linemen, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Don Barclay, unnecessary so far.
The offensive line has had moments of solidarity, but it is by no means an established, dominant unit yet. It allowed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sacked eight times in the Seattle loss. But it wants to become a model of consistency, and a good place to start would be having a healthy 2012.
It’s probably no coincidence that the healthiest offensive line the Packers have had since ‘03 was in 2010, when Clifton, Daryn Colledge, Scott Wells and Sitton settled in at their positions for the whole year and then Tauscher and Bulaga shared time at right tackle.
“You start to learn each other that much more,” Sitton said. “You get to the point where you don’t have to make calls, you know what the other guy is doing. You have better fits when you’re double-teaming.”
And it’s not just the linemen themselves. Rodgers understands what he can expect from the five in front of him so he can play around the line.
“He knows our tendencies,” Bulaga said. “He knows that Jeff’s tendency is to make the initial I.D., he understands how Josh Sitton is going to pass out a guy or how T.J is going to block. That’s what helps having the same five out there, because everyone plays a little bit different.”
As a rookie, Bulaga wasn’t always comfortable against pressure. Now he knows when he can count on Sitton, for example, to pick up a blitzing cornerback.
“Just being able to know you can trust the guy next to you, to know where he’s going to be and what he’s thinking, is huge,” Bulaga said.
Offensive linemen are the most injury-prone of all the position groups, probably because they collide with an opponent on every single play and they don’t come out for substitutions.
“Wide receivers have run plays. Defensive linemen rotate. Offensive linemen are going to play every play,” said Tauscher, who has joined the Packers pregame radio show this season. “It’s the five of you out there, and there’s a risk, always.”
The biggest worry is the knees. Tauscher said the most dreaded letters to a lineman are A-C-L. Crowded in the trenches, there’s no way to anticipate a diving defender while locked up with another. Both times Tauscher blew out his knee it was because someone crashed in to the side of his leg.
“Injuries to O-linemen don’t happen because of fatigue,” Lang said. “It’s more guys falling in to your knees. Or getting hit the wrong way on the field. A lot of it you can’t really prevent.
“A lot of it is luck. Luck and making sure you’re in a position where it is hard for you to get rolled up on by keeping your feet moving around piles.”
With just the two backups, the Packers are counting on a successful return of Derek Sherrod after six weeks on the physically unable to perform list because of the broken leg he suffered last year. Until then, the linemen play through. Sitton already battled through a knee injury that limited him in practice in Week 3. And now Bulaga is battling through knee tendinitis.
“It’s even more important to stay on and fight through something, because we only have seven,” Sitton said.
All of the Packers linemen have played through injuries at some time. Lang said it is expected. A wide receiver may not be able to catch a pass with a broken hand, but a lineman can still block on a bad knee. Marco Rivera made the Pro Bowl one year playing on two bad knees.
“We’re the toughest group, there’s no doubt,” Sitton said. “Seriously. Absolutely.”
Seattle’s defensive front was too much for Green Bay’s line. Rodgers was sacked five times in the first 20 minutes and had little time to look for the deep throw. With his receivers covered, he held on to the ball.
In the narrow victory against New Orleans, Green Bay’s offensive line performed nearly flawlessly. Rodgers wasn’t sacked and the group was flagged for just one penalty.
The line was helped by coach Mike McCarthy calling enough running plays to make the offense balanced. Rodgers also got the ball out quicker.
“A lot of people would be watching us after last week’s performance,” Lang said. “It says a lot that we responded positively. We showed that when we keep Rodgers clean, we can make a lot of big plays.
“We ran the ball pretty well. That’s definitely helps keep them off balance. It’s tough when you get behind to pass block 20 straight plays. When we run effectively it makes our job a little bit easier.
“It’s our now job to do all of that more consistently.”
With a little luck and the same starting five, the line will have a shot to do just that.
“You start to learn each other that much more.”