Going into the 2016 NFL season, looking at the units on both the offensive and defensive lines of the Green Bay Packers, there were a number of questions that needed to be answered.
On the offensive line, the biggest question was how would the Packers be able to replace two-time Pro Bowler and two-time (second-team) All-Pro Josh Sitton, who was a surprise cut for the team just before the season began?
Plus, how would JC Tretter do as the starting center, with Corey Linsley on the PUP list?
In addition, the offensive line as a whole did not have a great campaign in 2015, but a lot of that was due to injuries. Everyone of the starters on the line was affected. So, would the group be able to bounce back and play well as a unit if healthy?
The defensive line had a number of questions too. For one thing, nose tackle B.J. Raji surprisingly retired. How would he be replaced?
In addition, Mike Pennel was facing a four-game suspension to start the regular season. How would the Packers overcome losing Pennel over those four games?
Also, first-round draft pick Kenny Clark hurt his back late in the preseason, plus wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire either with his play. Would he be able to play? And if he did, would he play effectively?
The units on both the offensive and defensive lines have answered these questions quite well over four games.
First, let’s look at the offensive line. Lane Taylor has done a very nice job replacing Sitton at left guard. Not only is his run-blocking been good, but his pass-blocking has been effective as well.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari, who was given a contract extension shortly after Sitton was released, is playing the best football of his career. The most notable improvement for Bakhtiari is his run-blocking. No. 69 always had the quick feet to be an excellent pass-blocker against edge-rushers, but now that Bakhtiari is stronger, he can wade off the bull-rushers too.
Tretter isn’t as strong as Linsley, but is quicker, especially getting to the next level. All in all, Tretter will probably remain the starter when Linsley comes off the PUP list. It’s a great problem for the Packers to have though, as both are effective starters.
Right guard T.J. Lang played through some shoulder woes in 2015 that affected his play, but is healthy in 2016 and his excellent play shows that. The play of Sitton over the past few years has over-shadowed the play of Lang, but like Sitton, Lang deserves Pro Bowl consideration, as well as All-Pro mention.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga has always been considered one of the top players at his position since he came into the NFL in 2010. The problem with Bulaga has been staying healthy. Right now, No. 75 is indeed healthy and playing very well.
Pro Football Focus just put out their rankings for the top offensive lines in the NFL so far in 2016, and the offensive line of the Packers is ranked No. 2.
Here is what Pro Football Focus said about the offensive line of the Pack:
Another team with no real weak link along the line, the Packers have had all five starters playing well, especially when it comes to pass protection. The Packers’ line has allowed just 17 total pressures on the season, the best mark in the league (albeit across only three games). They have the second-best pass-blocking efficiency score, trailing only New Orleans, despite Aaron Rodgers ranking among the bottom half of QBs when it comes to the average time it takes to get rid of the football.
In terms of the defensive line, the production has just been outstanding. And also somewhat shocking. In fact, if one was going to rank the various units on the defense of the Packers before the 2016 season, the defensive line would have come in third, behind the defensive backs and linebackers.
Now, four games through the 2016 season, the exact opposite is true.
The Packers are ranked No. 1 in rushing defense in the NFL currently. No other team comes close to how good the Packers have been playing the run. After four games, Green Bay has only allowed an average of 42.8 yards per game.
The next closest team to the Packers in that category, is the New York Jets, who have allowed an average of 68.4 yards per game.
The line has been very stout in stopping the run, especially Mike Daniels, who is having a Pro Bowl and All-Pro season. Daniels has been unblockable at times.
Daniels isn’t the only one performing well. The rookie Clark has played much better than he did in the preseason and has shown steady improvement. Veteran Letroy Guion has also played solidly.
Christian Ringo and rookie Dean Lowry have also chipped in at times in stopping the run.
The play of the line has made it much easier for the inside linebackers to get to the hole and the running back. Jake Ryan leads the Packers with 29 tackles, while rookie Blake Martinez is second on the team with 21 tackles.
The ability to stop the run should get even better now that Pennel will be back after serving his four-game suspension.
That will come in handy this upcoming Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field, as the 3-1 Packers take on the 4-1 Dallas Cowboys.
Dallas leads the NFL in rushing, as the Boys average 155.2 yards per game on the ground.
Plus, the Cowboys are not just a running team, as the offense as a whole is second in the NFL in total offense (397 yards per game), as the team is led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
The Cowboys aren’t bad on defense either, as the team is ranked 11th in the NFL in run defense.
It doesn’t help that the Packers have listed both Eddie Lacy (ankle) and James Starks (knee) as questionable for the game on Sunday. It may get to the point where the Packers may need to call up rookie running back Don Jackson from the practice squad for the game on Sunday.
The Packers can also use Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb at running back if need be.
But the good news for the Packers is that both the offensive and defensive lines are playing exceptional right now. That should bode well for the rest of their units to follow suit.
In the total offense category, the team is ranked just 25th in the league. That should improve, especially in the passing game, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been given more than ample time to scan the field for open receivers.
Rodgers has a solid stat line, as he has thrown nine touchdown passes versus three interceptions, but his passing yardage (876 yards) has not been up to snuff, nor has his passer rating (87.7).
If Rodgers continues to get the protection he has received thus far this season, the improvement in the passing game is sure to follow. Against the New York Giants last Sunday night, Rodgers sometimes had seven or eight seconds to look for open receivers.
As it is, Rodgers has been sacked eight times in four games, which is the eighth-best mark in the league.
The Packers are ranked 12th in the NFL in running the football. Lacy has had a good bounce-back season thus far, after having a disappointing 2015 season. Currently, Lacy has run for 295 yards and has averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
Lacy always seems to run the ball well against the Cowboys, so it would be nice if he could play on Sunday. In two games against the Cowboys in his career, including last season, No. 27 has averaged 132.5 yards per game on the ground and has two touchdowns.
By the way, Rodgers also plays very well against Dallas. In five games against the Cowboys, Rodgers has thrown seven touchdown passes without a pick and has a passer rating of 100.8.
The defense of the Packers should also continue to improve. Overall, the Packers are ranked ninth in total defense. The line play has been outstanding to be sure, but so has the play of the linebackers, especially outside linebacker Nick Perry.
Perry is off to the best start of his career. No. 53 has 17 tackles, 4.5 sacks and has been very good in stopping the run around the edge.
As a team, the Packers are tied for fifth in the NFL with 14 sacks.
The Packers have had some issues in their secondary so far this season, but a big reason has been the absence of their best cornerback…Sam Shields. Shields suffered a concussion during the opener versus the Jacksonville Jaguars and has not played since. No. 37 will be out again on Sunday against the Cowboys, but is showing steady improvement and should be playing soon.
Demarious Randall has also been hampered by a groin injury and his availability for the Dallas game is still in question. No. 23 missed the game against the Giants last week due to the injury.
But the bottom line is that NFL games are won or lost in the trenches more times than not. And that is why the Packers should feel very good about their football team, as both lines are playing very well up to this point.