Offensive line rounds into shape

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Unit shows flashes blocking for 100-yard rusher
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Photo by Cory Dellenbach

The Packers offensive line opens a hole for running back James Starks during Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins at Lambeau Field. Sunday's performance hinted at how good the offensive line could be this season.

James Starks rightly got his due for finally breaking the 100-yard rushing bugaboo for the Packers.

Starks’ hard running inspired his teammates, especially the offensive line, who in turn responded with some superb blocking Sunday.

“It was just exciting for the entire offense as a whole to watch a guy go out there and run like that,” center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. “I think he set a tone with that hit on the sideline against (Brandon) Meriweather. He set the standard there. We have to keep hitting it. We have to keep it going throughout the year.”

The Packers quest for a better running game began in the offseason, with the drafting of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin.

Then the offensive line made significant transitions. First there was the move of tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton from the right to the left side of the line. Then there was the move of rookie David Bahktiari into the lineup after Bulaga’s season ended with a knee injury in training camp. Also, guard T.J. Lang moved from left to right.

Two games in there are hints that the line will be pretty good this season. Besides the 100-yard rusher, the line also had a 450-yard passer in quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who actually passed for 480 yards to tie the franchise single game record.

“I wouldn’t have been able to guess that we had a 450-yard passer, a 125-yard rusher,” Sitton said. “Obviously, I knew we were doing good.”

The line did give up three sacks early, and four total in the game, but showed improvement in both pass blocking and run blocking as the game went on.

“I kind of compare what we do to golfing,” Sitton said. “A lot of people talk about golf being a sport you can never perfect. That’s how football is. You can’t ever be perfect, but that’s what you’re striving for.”

One game isn’t enough evidence to tell if the offensive line will continue to show improvement as the season goes forward, or even that Starks will rip off 100 yards against Cincinnati, but proving that the unit could block well enough for Starks was an important step.

“I think we’ve had confidence around here for a long time that we could run the ball,” Sitton said. “It’s just something that we haven’t done. It’s a combination of calling more passing than runs, giving Mike (McCarthy) the confidence early in games. That’s something we saw against Washington; we were successful a couple times early, so he came back to it.”

Also there is the factor of how defenses choose to defend the Packers. As the Packers have success in the running game, it’ll be harder for defenses to sit in pass coverage trying to stop Rodgers.

“We’re going to take what we’re given,” Dietrich-Smith said. “We’re going to move the sticks out there. That’s the biggest part of what we do running the ball and balancing the offense.”

The most pressure on the new-look line has been on Bahktiari, who has had to grow up fast in the NFL.

“He’s impressed me,” Sitton said. “He’s been mature. He’s confident. Even when he does screw up, he seems to get over it.”

The rookie even drew some praise from his coach this week.

“I like the way that Bahktiari is playing,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s taking advantage of his opportunity.”

McCarthy thinks getting the position relatively early in training camp allowed Bahktiati to have the succes he’s had early manning the ever-important left tackle job.

The Packers run blocking ability will be tested Sunday by a tough Bengals defensive line and linebackers.

“The strength of their defense is the front seven,” Sitton said. “A lot of experience, a lot of guys who have played a lot of years in that system. Geno Atkins, he’s one of the best d-tackles in the league.”

If Starks — who will start as Lacy deals with a concussion — finishes with over 100 yards by the end of the day, the offensive line will have passed another test.