GREEN BAY, Wis. – For a guy who does his best work in the air, Aaron Rodgers is spending way too much time on the ground.
The reigning NFL MVP has been sacked 37 times, more than any quarterback in the league. He’s been knocked down more in the first 11 games than all of last season (36 sacks), and is on pace to topple the career-high 50 sacks he took in 2009.
And the Green Bay Packers (7-4) haven’t even seen Jared Allen yet.
“It’s something that we obviously talk about,” Rodgers said. “We shoot for, obviously, a lot less than we’ve had so far. We’ve got to do a better job as an offense of eliminating some of those. Some of those are situational stuff. Some of it’s getting beat one on one. Some of it’s holding the ball a little long. Some of it’s not getting open.
“So everybody has a part in that and, as a whole, we have to do a better job,” Rodgers added. “Because those hits start to add up a little bit.”
Finding a way to protect Rodgers is hardly a new problem for the Packers. He was getting knocked around more than a soda bottle in a carnival game early in that 2009 season. But the challenge might be even greater this time around because the solutions are limited, and the Packers face two teams with excellent pass rushes – Minnesota and the Bears – three times in the past five games, with the playoffs still on the line.
Injuries are partly to blame for the poor protection. Rodgers was hit often early in the year, getting sacked 16 times in the first three games – half of those by Seattle alone. But the line seemed to settle into a groove in mid-October, with Rodgers being sacked only eight times during a four-game span.
Then right tackle Bryan Bulaga of Crystal Lake suffered a season-ending hip injury against Arizona, and the line has been trying to adjust ever since.
T.J. Lang was shifted from left guard to right tackle, and Evan Dietrich-Smith replaced him at guard. That essentially puts two new players on the line – and that’s in addition to center Jeff Saturday. Saturday is a veteran, but this is his first year in Green Bay after spending his first 13 seasons in Indianapolis.
Though McCarthy insists the players can handle the moves, the adjustments have not exactly been smooth. Dietrich-Smith has looked overmatched, and the New York Giants’ swarm of pass rushers ran over left tackle Marshall Newhouse as if he wasn’t even there.
Most telling: Rodgers has been sacked eight times in the past two games, including five by the Giants. He’s been hit or under pressure probably a dozen more times.
“Any time that quarterback gets hit – it’s not just sacks, it’s a hit or a pressure – it’s a big deal,” offensive line coach James Campen said Thursday. “The quarterback has to be protected. We all know at times he’s not going to be and there’s going to be times he gets hit. But the frequency is too great. Yeah, it’s a big deal.”
McCarthy said he plans to stick with the same lineup and, really, the Packers don’t have a ton of options. Former first-round pick Derek Sherrod hasn’t recovered enough from his broken leg to come off the physically unable to perform list – he would have had to be activated this week – and the other backups are rookies. Green Bay also doesn’t ask its running backs or tight ends to play as big a role in pass protection as other teams, say the Bears. Not that the Packers have a whole lot of those to spare, either.
But McCarthy can alter his play calling to help Rodgers, just as he did back in ’09. More short passes would help get the ball out of Rodgers’ hands early, and get him out of harm’s way.
“Our offensive line performance Sunday was not our best performance,” McCarthy said. “It wasn’t our best performance as a whole offense, and you can start with me.”
No matter what they do, the Packers have to find a fix.
The Vikings (6-5) barely touched Jay Cutler last week, and some have wondered if Allen has lost a step because he has “only” seven sacks so far and has gone the past three games without one. But something about seeing Rodgers has always brought out the best in Allen.
Of his 112 career sacks, 12½ are of Rodgers. His single-game high of 4½ sacks came against Rodgers – in early October of ‘09, naturally. He’s failed to get at least one sack in just two of the eight games he’s faced Rodgers.
“Aaron is such a good quarterback that sometimes he’ll hold the ball a little longer to try to make a great play. Sometimes that can work against him,” Allen said. “You get a quarterback who is that good, sometimes you’ll get to him because he holds it a little extra and sometimes he burns you. I think it’s just been a combination of the way our games have been played over the years. They’re not afraid. Their offense is predicated on taking shots down the field. When you take shots down the field, every once in a while you’re going to give up some sacks.
“I’ve just been blessed to be on the fortunate side of it sometimes.”
Rodgers, though, is confident his protectors will get it together.
“I think there’s a lot of pride in that group,” he said. “We’re going to do a better job of putting them in situations where they can be successful. We’ve talked about some things already and hopefully we can protect a little better, get it out a little quicker, and be a little more efficient on offense.”
• AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski in Eden Prairie, Minn., contributed to this story.