Both in-season injuries and offseason departures contributed to the Green Bay Packers giving up 51 sacks and rushing for just 106.4 yards a game during the 2012-13 season.
Our friends at the statistical analysis site Pro Football Focus confirmed what was clearly visible this past season: The Packers offensive line was nothing more than a below-average unit in 2012.
According to their final offensive line rankings, the Packers finished the season at No. 21 overall—down 10 spots from their 11th-best finish in 2011.
"Despite the 51 sacks Aaron Rodgers took, this line more than did their part in protection. When you have a QB who holds on to the ball, sometimes things can look worse than they are. There’s no such excuses in the running game though. They were just weak up front."
Unbeknownst then, the precipitous fall of the Packers offensive line began last spring, when Pro Bowl center Scott Wells (+17.6 in 2011) bolted Green Bay for more money in St. Louis. To counter Wells' departure, Packers general manager Ted Thompson made the uncharacteristic move of signing a veteran free agent. 37-year-old Jeff Saturday was his pick, in large part because of Saturday's cerebral abilities as the anchor of an offensive line.
While Saturday ended up in the Pro Bowl, he was benched in Week 16 because of ineffectiveness and injury. Saturday struggled in executing the reach blocks and was routinely out-muscled in the trenches. Evan Dietrich-Smith (-0.5) took his place and started the final four games.
According to PFF, Saturday graded out as the No. 28 overall center (-5.0) and worst run-blocking center (-13.9) in 2012.
Injuries also took their toll on the offensive line.
Promising right tackle Bryan Bulaga (-3.0) suffered a serious hip injury during Green Bay's Week 9 win over the Arizona Cardinals, and was later placed on season-ending injured reserve. After losing left guard-turned-right tackle T.J. Lang (+0.9) in Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay plugged in undrafted rookie Don Barclay (-7.5) on the right side. When Barclay proved up to the challenge, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy decided to leave Barclay at right tackle and returned Lang to left guard the next week.
Despite the shuffling and 51 total sacks allowed, Green Bay still finished the season ranked No. 11 in terms of pass protection.
Running the football was a different story.
The Packers ended 2012 as PFF's 27th ranked run-blocking team, partly because of talent up front but also a rotating wheel of so-so running backs handling the carries.
When veteran Cedric Benson was lost in Week 5 to a Lisfranc foot injury, the majority of snaps at running back were then divided up between Alex Green (-3.2), James Starks (-3.8) and Ryan Grant (-1.7). The trio was underwhelming, and none of three held the position for more than a handful of games at a time. Only when DuJuan Harris (+2.3) was introduced into the lineup in Week 14 did the Packers show any kind of explosiveness or consistency in the run game.
The Packers averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in 2012, good for 22nd in the NFL. Seven different players rushed for over 100 yards, but Green Bay failed to have at least one back break 500 yards.
The lone standout on the offensive line was Josh Sitton (+20.7), who graded out well in both pass protection (+12.3) and run blocking (+7.5). Originally selected as only an alternate, Sitton made his first trip to the Pro Bowl when the San Francisco 49ers qualified for the Super Bowl and guard Mike Iupati needed to be replaced. Sitton's best season according to PFF remains 2010, when he finished +38.2.
Left tackle Marshall Newhouse allowed a team-high 54 total disruptions (nine sacks, eight quarterback hits, 37 hurries), but improved his overall grade from an NFL-worst -32.0 in 2011 to a more respectable -4.6 this season. Newhouse's biggest struggles still come in the running game, where he graded out at -12.3—worst among NFL tackles.
Lang regressed from an impressive mark of +15.3 last season to just +0.9 in 2012. His pass-blocking was the area to blame. After allowing just 14 total disruptions (2/1/11) in 2011, Lang gave up 26 (9/5/12) this season.
Bulaga also regressed during his nine-game sample, although he graded out +5.1 over his final four games after starting the season -8.1. In the grand scheme of the Packers' 2012 season, Bulaga's injury remains an understated storyline. He allowed 27 disruptions (4/3/20) in nine games after allowing just 24 (1/2/21) in 16 games in 2011.
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.