Torn ACL sidelines Packers' Bulaga for season

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By Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

GREEN BAY--There has to be something particularly tortuous for Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy in watching his reshuffled offensive line cruise a week into training camp only to see it pop a wheel for no apparent reason.

McCarthy made the decision during the offseason to swap right tackle Bryan Bulaga and right guard Josh Sitton with left tackle Marshall Newhouse and left guard T.J. Lang and was rewarded for his creativeness with a smoothly functioning line. It was almost too good to be true the way the pieces fell together.

“I think they’re farther ahead than what I expected,” offensive line coach James Campen remarked last week. “I think they’re in a seamless transition. Each rep it gets easier and easier on them. I think they’re doing a good job of it. We’re over the hump.”

Only everything changed in the intrasquad scrimmage when Bulaga tore his ACL on a play in which it would have taken Scotland Yard to detect something wrong with him. He didn’t even leave the field after hurting it and a source said he didn’t say anything to anybody until Sunday morning.

It’s undoubtedly better that the injury occurred during the second week of camp rather than the second quarter of the opener against San Francisco, but that probably was of no solace to McCarthy on Monday. The focal point of his line shuffle is done for the season—Bulaga will need season-ending surgery to repair the ligament—and now McCarthy has to figure out where to go next at left tackle.

He could go back to Newhouse, who started 16 games there last year, but he moved Bulaga to left tackle because Newhouse’s play wasn’t acceptable there. Moving him back would mean McCarthy is back to where he started.

The most obvious move is to call on impressive fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari, who has shed a finesse-player label and been extremely impressive pass blocking. That is the No. 1 requirement to play left tackle. Still, he can’t be a liability in the run game.

This past week, Campen was typically guarded in describing the rookie’s play, but that’s because Bakhtiari hasn’t accomplished anything other than showing himself capable of performing well in the first week of camp. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but be impressed.

“He’s progressing nicely,” Campen said. “We’re in our sixth practice, right? He’s an athletic kid. We knew that coming out. He does a good job with his assignments. He’s very assignment-sure. He’s learning the game, getting down the speed playing against bigger, faster people. He’s doing a good job.”

Should Bakhtiari be the starter, it wouldn’t be the first time a rookie had gotten that assignment at left tackle and succeeded.

Ross Verba was the first rookie to start at left tackle in a Super Bowl (XXXII) and Chad Clifton moved into the position in the sixth game of the year in 2000, eventually teaming with another rookie, right tackle Mark Tauscher, to form two-fifths of the line that season. Clifton went on to be the starter for 12 seasons.

Bakhtiari said he felt he built a solid foundation for himself the first week of practice after the coaches stuck him in the mix at right tackle. His snaps increased when it was determined that right tackle Don Barclay was needed at center and guard and started getting most of his reps there.

Where Bakhtiari really shined was in the one-on-one pass rush drill, which is a good place to start but not necessarily a surefire predictor of success. Part of his early success could be the offseason training he did with linebacker Clay Matthews in Westlake, Calif.

Matthews had been working out with Bakhtiari’s older brother and when the Packers drafted David, the rookie joined in. If Bakhtiari was a finesse player then, he quickly learned what kind of physical specimens he would be facing in the NFL while training with Matthews.

“If I can compete with him and at least know I’m working as hard as one of the best, if not the best, pass rusher, then that speaks volumes,” Bakhtiari said last week. “He’s been helping me out, shedding some good knowledge about the game and what he likes to do pass rushing. That helps out a lot.”

Though McCarthy will be shuffling Bakhtiari and Newhouse around, chances are he’ll keep Sitton and Lang in their current positions. When he made the decision to flip his guards and tackles from their respective positions he cited the familiarity the two had with each other in moving them together.

But it wasn’t the only reason. McCarthy said at the time he told the players of the move in May he had come to the conclusion that Sitton was better-suited for the left side and Lang for the right.

Interestingly, the decision came together after McCarthy and his staff saw Sitton play left guard in the Pro Bowl. They considered many factors in considering a move of their best lineman.

“There was a lot of information that went into this decision,” McCarthy said.

Sitton has had his share of blips during camp at left guard, but in the scrimmage he was dominant at times, once driving end Mike Daniels back several yards on a running play. Lang isn’t the pass blocker Sitton is, but he’s a mauler and can be outstanding at getting to the second level and walling off blockers.

“If you go back, we’re a little bit of an extension of where you put your athletic guy on the left and the more powerful guy on the right,” McCarthy said of a traditional offensive line. “There’s some credence to going that way. But we’re more diverse an offense that. It’s just important for both of them to understand the responsibility they have.”

Even though Lang has experience playing next to Newhouse, don’t expect a switch if Newhouse wins the left tackle job. It should benefit either Newhouse or rookie Bakhtiari to have a veteran with Sitton’s talent playing next to them.

Bulaga’s injury will have an impact on at least one guy: Barclay, who has been focusing at mostly guard and center while Newhouse and Bakhtiari have been battling it out at right tackle. He is going to have to get back to being a tackle, either as a starter or a backup.

The wild card in the whole thing is Derek Sherrod, the Packers’ 2011 first-round pick. But don’t expect him to come back from 20 months off due to a broken leg and become a starter. Whenever it is he returns from the physically unable to perform list, he’s going to need a lot of work to get back to where he can compete for a job at left tackle, his natural position.

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