GREEN BAY – Evan Dietrich-Smith could only shrug.
“Sometimes in the league,” the Green Bay Packers center said, resignation in his voice, “you’ve got to just deal with stuff.”
The Packers offensive line has dealt with more than its share of “stuff” this season. And the hits just keep on comin’.
The line was in makeshift mode during the team’s 40-10 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Detroit Lions. A week later, looking to atone for its worst performance of the season, it was in even worse shape.
Dietrich-Smith, who initially injured his right knee Nov. 10 against Philadelphia and reinjured it against the Lions, sprained his ankle in practice Wednesday and sat out on Thursday. Because the Packers don’t have a true backup center on their 53-man roster following Greg Van Roten’s season-ending foot injury, right guard T.J. Lang shifts to center whenever he’s sidelined. That, in turn, leads to more shuffling.
When Dietrich-Smith went down against the Eagles, right tackle Don Barclay moved to right guard and Marshall Newhouse came in at right tackle. Against the Lions, the Packers left Barclay – who was making his first start after missing two games with a knee injury of his own suffered against the Eagles – at right tackle and plugged Newhouse in at Lang’s right guard spot.
Not long after, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh burst between Lang and Newhouse to sack quarterback Matt Flynn in the end zone for a safety. Newhouse, the team’s starting left tackle in 2011 and 2012 who has struggled almost every time he’s come off the bench this year, was later pulled in favor of rookie Lane Taylor.
On top of that, rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari missed practice Thursday because he was sick, forcing even more shuffling of Newhouse, Barclay, Taylor and Derek Sherrod, the 2011 first-round draft pick who missed almost two years with a career-threatening broken leg and was activated from the physically unable to perform list last month.
All this, after losing starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee before the season even began and rookie fourth-round pick JC Tretter to a broken ankle in the very first organized team activity practice in May. Bulaga landed on season-ending injured reserve with his injury, which happened in the Aug. 3 Family Night Scrimmage; Tretter opened the season on the PUP list and took part in his first practice in pads in Thursday. He has yet to be activated to the 53-man roster.
Yes, the list is long. But Dietrich-Smith knows there is no point making excuses.
“You have to accept the fact that injuries are a part of it and some guys are going to be playing through it more than others,” Dietrich-Smith said. “It just depends how bad you do it.”
Against the Lions, the offensive line gave up seven sacks on Flynn, but Packers offensive line coach James Campen said it wasn’t just injuries that were the problem.
“That’s the way it happens,” Campen said. “These guys, for T.J., he’s played all over the place, Marshall’s played left and right, the young guy Lane’s been playing primarily right guard. So it shouldn’t affect us that much as it did.”
Campen said the team has confidence if Dietrich-Smith can’t go on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, and Lang had to start at center. Campen also said Tretter “did OK” and “did a little bit of everything” Thursday. Tretter’s three-week PUP practice window opened on Nov. 20, and the team will have to decide whether to activate him to the 53-man roster or put him on season-ending injured reserve in the next several days.
Tretter could be activated for Sunday’s game against the Falcons, just as defensive end Jerel Worthy and safety Sean Richardson were activated on Nov. 23 and played against Minnesota the next day.
McCarthy said that if Dietrich-Smith does not play on Sunday, he will look at the performances of Newhouse, Taylor and Sherrod to decide how he’d configure the right side of the line with Lang at center.
“If (Dietrich-Smith) can’t go, I think you have to look at the other players,” McCarthy said. “The opportunity that would be in front of either Lane, Derek, or Marshall it’s something that needs to be earned. And performance will drive it.”
Dietrich-Smith admitted after he injured his ankle that he was frustrated that his injury caused the reshuffle of the offensive line.
“I don’t like putting anyone in that spot,” Dietrich-Smith said. “If I didn’t hurt it, I would be fine and nobody would be saying anything about it. But it’s a crappy situation sometimes. The five guys that we have up front, we’ve got pretty good chemistry and when you’ve got to shuffle everything around, it makes it a little more difficult.”
It’s unclear whether Bakhtiari will return to practice Friday. If he doesn’t, there’ll be even more shuffling, and he admitted Wednesday that chemistry among the linemen playing is affected by the changes. For example, Bakhtiari said, he and left guard Josh Sitton took time to develop chemistry with one another, and the same is the case on the other side of the line.
“It’s different because it’s obviously new people are playing new positions,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s just something you have to adjust on the fly. It’s not ideal, but you’ve got to make it work.
“Chemistry’s the biggest thing. If Josh or me were to go down and we had to be working with someone else … it took us a month-and-a-half before we really started rolling and getting comfortable.”
Bakhtiari said it’s not just the chemistry with the other offensive linemen that is important; it is also difficult to protect a quarterback who he has not had much work with.
“I think I’ve had four quarterbacks,” Bakhtiari said. “I did the same thing in college. It is a little tough, but you build so much chemistry with Aaron during the two-and-a-half (to) three months that I’ve been working with him. And then you shuffle in Seneca (Wallace) for a week, Scott (Tolzien) for two and a half weeks, Matt Flynn now. Different lingo, where they set, how they feel.
"You’ve just got to build that chemistry and work off of each other. It’s the same thing with the shuffling of the line. You’ve got to feel comfortable with your quarterback, too, in the pass protection.
“We want to go out there and re-establish ourselves. People are doubting us. That’s fine. Cool.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.