New center shouldn't slow down Green Bay offense

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Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wednesday, August 27, 2014

GREEN BAY--When you think "no-huddle," think Sam Gash gunning fastballs to Eddie Lacy on the sideline during practice. Think Aaron Rodgers wasting no time between plays. Think of the defensive coordinator in the booth going gray.

JC Tretter was off to a fast start as an NFL center. He’s athletic, a former high school quarterback, an Ivy League grad who lived off Lombardi Ave.

But what the Packers have done better than anything else this summer—run the fast break on offense—shouldn’t be too affected by rookie Corey Linsley supplanting the injured Tretter.

The primary pieces remain in place. Rodgers. Lacy. The four returning starters up front.

Those 48 hours after the news of Tretter (knee) missing “multiple weeks” went public didn’t incite much panic. With Linsley, offensive line coach James Campen doesn’t see the offense pumping the brakes.

“He will keep the pace,” Campen said. “And you know, it’s unfortunate when someone gets injured, obviously. It was told to me once, ‘Look, if you get the opportunity, go do the job better than the other guy.’ That should be your goal.”

The first-team offense’s tune-up against Oakland was clunky. Staring at green pastures up the left seam, Randall Cobb had a bad drop. The unit had two blink-and-miss three-and-out’s. Rodgers was walloped by LaMarr Woodley. The offensive line checked out for stretches—see: James Starks’ nine yards on seven carries.

And even then, even through an imperfect outing, the Packers’ first team produced 22 points.

The reason? Play count. Pace. Rodgers moved fast, putting constant pressure on Oakland schematically. By the time he exited with 6 minutes left in the first half, Green Bay had reeled off 39 plays.

One reason for August progression, certainly, was Tretter. He’s a more athletic alternative than Jeff Saturday and Evan Dietrich-Smith. But the fusion of Rodgers and Lacy in the same offense is the real root of Super Bowl aspirations. As long as this duo remains healthy, the Packers should be able to run 80 plays and score 30-plus points.

It’s an odd, unusual pairing.

The best up-tempo offenses rarely boast a 240(ish)-pound bruiser. Jim Kelly had the 200-pound Thurman Thomas. Peyton Manning had Edgerrin James, a versatile threat with baby-soft hands.

Boasting a rugged back typically seen in mashing, melt-the-clock offenses, allows Green Bay to back defensive play-callers into a corner.

“It’s tough,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “The faster you go, the less the defense can do. Then to have a back like Eddie and James and even DuJuan (Harris) is coming on, too, to have a guy back there who can be a threat when you decide to play coverage.”

Van Pelt chuckled.

“Then you always talk about loading the box up to stop the run, then good. With Aaron’s ability and our receivers, it’s kind of pick your poison.”

St. Louis kept an extra linebacker on the field, so Rodgers went to the air. Oakland stuck to its base 4-3 alignment, too.

“As long as we can play fast and keep everybody healthy,” Van Pelt said, “it’s a good problem.”

The center’s job in no-huddle, Campen said, is finding the ball—quickly—thus speeding the other 10 players up. From there, well, he won’t be overloaded mentally. Protection calls are evenly distributed along Green Bay’s offensive line. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang bring a combined 143 starts, and Rodgers has more on-the-line freedom than ever.

If Linsley can stop penetration from blowing up the whole operation, the Packers should be fine.

Sitton said running no-huddle actually makes Linsley’s job “easier,” because the number of plays Rodgers runs is shrunk. The no-huddle playbook varies week to week, so Linsley can study accordingly.

Strength-wise, this is a guy who threw up 225 pounds 36 times at the NFL scouting combine. Defensive linemen noticed early.

“With his strength, he can get some movement on the line and clamp a guy down,” said veteran B.J. Raji earlier in camp.

As daunting as Qwest Field may seem, from the “12th Man” aura to that trash-talking, blood-thirsty defense, the 6-foot-3, 301-pound Linsley isn’t a novice. He knows pressure, adversity. In Columbus, he was on a college program riddled by sanctions. He was suspended himself. He nearly quit football entirely.

And Linsley emerged an All-Big Ten center who turned his life of partying (and laziness) completely around.

Seattle’s stadium holds 67,000. Linsley has been in Michigan’s stadium, “The Big House,” which holds 110,000.

Said Campen, “He’s had to do a lot of things without hearing, so he’ll be fine.”

So be worried if an injury finally forces Lacy to miss time. He’s got an ace up his sleeve this year—receiving ability. All that work with his position coach Gash whistling passes is starting to pay off. And Van Pelt, the running backs coach last year, remembers seeing an Alabama play on film where Lacy split wide and caught a slant. Perhaps, these hands were a hidden talent all along.

“That was something that caught my antennas,” Van Pelt said.

When the Packers spread out, Lacy will get opportunities underneath.

This dimension is “huge” for the Packers offense, he added.

“To be able to hand him the ball and do what he does in the run game,” Van Pelt said, “and let teams play coverage and drop back into zones and actually give him a 4- or 5-yard head start without having to get to the offensive line.

“Now, he’s just turning, running and getting yards after the catch. He could have a big year.”

Yeah, it was a brutal weekend for the Packers. They’re used to these. Fans almost expected it.

But losing the starting center is not a debilitating blow to the breakneck tempo Green Bay seeks.

Tyler Dunne covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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