Believe it or not, but an injury during Sunday's 23-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings may have allowed the Green Bay Packers to find their starting five offensive linemen for the rest of the 2012 season.
When right tackle T.J. Lang rolled his ankle with a little over six minutes to go in the second quarter, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was forced to summon undrafted rookie Don Barclay to play alongside right guard Josh Sitton.
Once considered a worst case scenario, Barclay's 2.5 quarters protecting the right side for Aaron Rodgers were more than enough for McCarthy to strongly consider starting the 23-year-old at right tackle for the remainder of the season.
In fact, his performance Sunday against Brian Robison—an underrated defensive end with 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons—ranks alongside any that a Packers right tackle has put together over 12 games in 2012.
Thrown head-first into a difficult situation, Barclay delivered. And what could have turned into an unmitigated disaster ended with an inspiring performance worthy of the Packers' "Next Man Up" mantra.
Any questions about how confident McCarthy would be in Barclay were answered early. On the first play with Barclay in the game, McCarthy called a run behind the 6-4, 305-pound tackle. Alex Green gained three yards.
Barclay's worst look of the day came two plays later, when Robison bounced off a chip block from John Kuhn and beat Barclay inside, prompting a holding call and a mess of a play that luckily resulted in offsetting penalties.
From there, Barclay was rarely heard from. In terms of offensive line play, that's all you can ask for. Another look at his performance spoke volumes.
Barclay's play at right tackle was the sole focus of my second watching of Sunday's game. Here are some of my own notes:
- On the first play of Barclay's second series, McCarthy again showed that the playcalling wouldn't change with the rookie in the game. Thanks to a bad decision from Randall Cobb to run east-west instead of north-south on a punt return, the Packers found themselves pinned inside the 10-yard line. Instead of calling a run or two to escape the shadow of their own goalposts, McCarty dropped Rodgers back on first down. You probably don't ask your quarterback to throw from the end zone unless there's a semblance of confidence in your right tackle. Left on an island against Robison, Barclay handled the situation fine.
- By my count, only one hurry could be assigned to Barclay in nearly 20-pass blocking snaps. It came on his third snap.
- The Packers didn't have a negative play when running behind Barclay. Six of the 10 runs, however, went for five or more yards, including Starks' 22-yard touchdown.
- On 12 different occasions—yes, 12—Rodgers was able to buy time by escaping the pocket to the right of the formation. On the game's biggest play—a 33-yard completion to Randall Cobb late in the fourth quarter—Barclay helped clear the right side for Rodgers to buy time and find Cobb, who ran a drag route across the entire field.
- A big reason for Barclay's success in giving Rodgers a lane to buy time was his ability to drive Robison up field on speed rushes. On several plays, Barclay did a strong job of moving his feet and getting his hands on Robison as he tried to turn the corner. Lang struggled with this in two games against speed rushers.
- McCarthy left Barclay on an island against Robison on a majority of the passing plays. When he did get help, it was in the form of chip blocks from the backs. There was no coddling of the inexperienced tackle Sunday.
- The play ended in an interception, but Barclay's hustle and clear-out block on Robison allowed Rodgers to step into a deep ball on the throw-back pass. If the play goes for the touchdown, Barclay is a hero.
- On Starks' 22-yard touchdown, Barclay pulled outside in front of the sweep and did just enough on linebacker Erin Henderson to open up the play. It wasn't picture-perfect, but Barclay accomplished his job in front of the run.
- One area where Barclay struggled was finishing blocks on the second level. Chad Greenway shed a pair of block attempts when Barclay either pulled inside or got to disengage into the second level.
- Barclay's second holding call was ticky-tack. The original block was perfect, but he got a little tug in as Rodgers (again) escaped the pocket to his right. Good call by the book, but Barclay briefly getting his hands outside Robison's pads had no effect on the play.
The Packers don't have a timetable on Lang's injury yet, but the ankle was obviously in bad enough shape that he couldn't return Sunday. For all we know, Lang's injury status could force Barclay into the starting role at right tackle whether McCarthy wants to or not.
The Packers host the Detroit Lions Sunday night.
But if Lang is healthy, McCarthy will need to think long and hard about plugging Barclay into the starting lineup on the right side and returning Lang to his more natural spot at left guard.
While young, inexperienced and lacking any clout in terms of draft status, Barclay showed more in 2.5 quarters Sunday than Lang did in 9.5 over the the last three weeks. Overall, Barclay is simply a better athlete in space and has more feel for the position.
Lang, more of a mauler who is comfortable mixing it up inside, provides a big upgrade over Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard.
The results Sunday are enough to at least force McCarthy into considering the move.
The Packers allowed just two sacks and rushed for 152 yards, the second-most in a game this season. Barclay's play on the right side played an important role in each.
Now, Green Bay must decide if Barclay's emergency promotion Sunday should remain a long-term option. Judging by what Barclay put on film against the Vikings, McCarthy might be hard-pressed to return to an offensive line without the 23-year-old rookie on the right side.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.