GREEN BAY – Whatever you think of the Green Bay Packers decision to shuffle their offensive line deck – that it smacks of desperation, that it was an overreaction to the 51 sacks Aaron Rodgers absorbed, that it absolutely had to be done or that it’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard – you have to acknowledge this much: The idea is predicated primarily on the belief that Bryan Bulaga will be a significant upgrade at left tackle.
If Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and offensive line coach James Campen didn’t believe that, then it’s hard to imagine the point of making any of the moves, which not only shifted Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle, but moved Josh Sitton from right guard to left guard, T.J. Lang from left guard to right guard and Marshall Newhouse from left tackle to right tackle, where he’ll compete with Don Barclay, David Bakhtiari and Derek Sherrod to keep his spot in the starting lineup.
The moves came after Rodgers was sacked a league-high 51 times last season and the Packers’ running game ranked 20th in the league in rushing yards per game (106.4) and 22nd in yards per attempt (3.9).
McCarthy said it himself when the news broke (“I wouldn't have done it if I didn't have full confidence in Bryan”) and reiterated that stance multiple times this offseason, including during organized team activity practices (“I feel Bryan is our best tackle”) multiple times. McCarthy also gave other reasons, too, but if McCarthy didn’t think Bulaga would be an appreciable improvement over Newhouse, he probably doesn’t pull the trigger.
Even though he played left tackle in college at Iowa and will admit when pressed that left tackle is his preferred position, Bulaga never once complained about being a right tackle, as he was thrust into the starting lineup there as a rookie first-round pick in 2010 after longtime starter Mark Tauscher went down with what ended up being a season-ending shoulder injury. Bulaga had actually made his NFL debut at left tackle when veteran Chad Clifton had struggled against Buffalo, and he’d spent virtually every practice working at left tackle before Tauscher went down, forcing the move.
“You wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me. You haven’t heard it for four years,” Bulaga said of not complaining about waiting so long to move to the left side. “I think it took me a little while longer my rookie year (to get used to right tackle) because I was still trying to get the playbook down and grasp the playbook and get on the same page with Josh. He’d been playing with ‘Tausch’ for a couple years and he was used to ‘Tausch.’ It was him and I both trying to get on the same page and me trying to grasp the playbook and switching sides.
“I think this will be a little more smooth. I know the offense a lot better. It’s just a matter of switching sides now – footwork and technique. But it’s going to take reps. That’s all it is.”
Bulaga only played 587 snaps last year because of the hip injury that ended his season, but before going down against Arizona on Nov. 4, he had allowed four sacks, three quarterback hits and 20 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Of those, two sacks, one hit and eight pressures came in the Packers’ Week 3 loss at Seattle, when Bulaga had the worst night of his career.
Bulaga said during OTAs that he was 100 percent recovered from the hip injury, and he did take all of the first-team reps set aside for him during offseason practices.
“I feel good. I feel the hip healed very well. In the offseason, no issues with it, no setbacks,” Bulaga said. “It felt great the entire time. Obviously, not initially when I first did it, but every week it seemed to progress and get better.
“I’m just trying to get comfortable with what I’m doing out there again. It’s going to be a little bit more of a transition. It’s going to take a little more time to get that back.”
If there is a concern about Bulaga, it’s how he’ll handle speed rushers. There were questions about how he’d handle speed rushers coming out of Iowa (it even mentions it in his official draft profile from the league) and his poor performance in Seattle came against lightning-quick, undersized rusher Bruce Irvin, who beat him for both sacks and one pressure.
Among the athletic pass rushers Bulaga figures to face this season are San Francisco's Aldon Smith, Cincinnati's Michael Johnson, Minnesota's Jared Allen, Chicago's Juilus Peppers, the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware.
“I mean, you never want to hear your name being called in that sense, negatively. But, it happens,” Bulaga said of the Seattle game. “I think the important part is learning from it and moving on. I think I settled down in the second half. I didn't use any fundamentals for most of the first half. I was just out there, I don't know what I was out there doing. I just wasn't playing my game, and that's what happens. I know that's not going to happen again."
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