Pass protection was such a bugaboo for the Green Bay Packers in 2009 that to see them rebound the first preseason game of 2010 was a step in the right direction.
And to do it in the face of the heavy pressure the Cleveland Browns were bringing throughout the game was even better. It was clear that Cleveland coach Eric Mangini and his defensive staff came into the game stressing a heavy pass rush.
"Their defense came in with a lot of pressure as their emphasis, which is excellent work for our offensive football team," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy after the game. "I thought our first, really, first three quarters, with Aaron [Rodgers] and Matt [Flynn] and the protection unit and the run blocking, it gives us some really good looks on the tape that we can learn from."
Rodgers was the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL a season ago having been taken down a league high 50 times, tied with Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.
The Packers gave up 51 total sacks in '09 (including one on Flynn) including an alarming 37 through the first eight games. Things got better better in the second half of the season for a variety of factors. The offensive line functioned better with the return of Mark Tauscher, Rodgers got rid of the football a little quicker and the Packers offense utilized more multiple-receiver sets to give their quarterback more targets.
And through at least one exhibition game, the pass protection continued to orchestrate at a high level with everyone playing their part. The offense's first touchdown of the game was the perfect example with Rodgers recognizing the pressure the Browns were bringing and making the proper adjustments. The offensive line and running back Brandon Jackson responded perfectly.
"It just tells me I'm seeing the game I want to see it, to be able to check off there," said Rodgers after the game. "We did a nice job. We picked up the pressure there, bringing corner blitz. And we checked the protection, Brandon had a nice pickup and Greg [Jennings] ran a nice route to get open and a nice catch; it was on an underthrown ball. That felt good, definitely."
The result was a 25-yard touchdown strike to Jennings taking advantage of one-on-one coverage against Cleveland rookie safety T.J. Ward who was unable to keep up with the wide receiver down the right sideline.
The offense protected the quarterback in less than ideal conditions as well. It was only a preseason game, but they had to dig themselves out a 14-0 hole a mere 6:20 into the game thanks to the defense giving up an opening drive touchdown and another quick score following a fumble from Ryan Grant on Green Bay's first offensive play from scrimmage.
Plus they had to do it with Daryn Colledge and rookie Bryan Bulaga rotating at left guard every possession, a position where the first-round draft choice had only been practicing for the past week.
"It's going to take a while to get comfortable at guard," said Bulaga. "I just moved there Monday. It's going to take more reps, more snaps to really get feeling good there. That was game action out there at guard. You got to get adjusted to those types of things, but I thought overall I did some good things but made some mistakes. You got to get out the tape tomorrow, correct it and work at it."
The Packers gave up only one sack the entire game coming in the second half on a play in which Flynn arguably should have gotten rid of the ball. With adequate protection from the second-string offensive line, the play could be considered a coverage sack when Flynn couldn't find an open receiver.
In any case, the blitz pressure the Brown brought on Saturday night should serve as a primer for what the Packers will face in the regular season.
"To play against our defense every day in practice and then to come out here and see the amount of pressure we saw tonight, those are good things to help you prepare because I can promise Philadelphia is going to pressure us in Week 1," said McCarthy. "So there is going to be a lot of good film to learn from."
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