GREEN BAY – It turns out it’s not just the players in both the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers locker rooms that know a key match-up in Saturday’s game will be at the line of scrimmage.
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young – 49ers icon, friend to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers – thinks so, too.
“Aaron Rodgers will beat you if he's protected,” Young, now an ESPN NFL analyst, said in a conference call with the media on Wednesday in advance of Saturday night’s Packers-49ers meeting in an NFC Divisional Playoff game at Candlestick Park. “If you can bring four guys and put pressure on Aaron Rodgers, you can beat him.
To ensure the advantage is to their quarterback, the Packers’ offensive line will have to stop a defense that features the duo of outside linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive end Justin Smith. Aldon Smith is second in the National Football League with 19.5 sacks, but has not had one since Justin Smith partially tore his left triceps on Dec. 16 against New England.
“If you bring five or six, that's more of an uneven fight to Aaron's favor; but if you can bring four – and that's why (49ers defensive tackle) Justin Smith is so important in my mind,” Young continued. “If he's playing and full speed and they can bring four (rushers) with Aldon Smith, create havoc with four guys, that's the special sauce that Aaron can't control. He can't beat that because he's just under duress and every quarterback knows you can't. Under a certain amount of duress, you can't do your job. But other than that, it's all advantage to Aaron Rodgers.”
Packers guard T.J. Lang called Justin Smith “one of the best players in all of the NFL,” and noted the importance of protecting Rodgers.
“Oh, it's going to be huge,” Lang said. “Whenever you're facing a front seven like San Francisco has, everything starts with the offensive line. We understand that it's going to be up to us to keep Aaron clean, let him make some plays back there in the pocket. That's going to be a huge factor in how this game turns out.”
In the Week 1 matchup between the two teams, Rodgers was sacked three times – the lowest in a loss this season. The make-up of the Packers’ offensive line has changed drastically since that contest, as rookie Don Barclay has taken over at right tackle after starter Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending hip injury on Nov. 4 and veteran center Jeff Saturday was benched in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith with two regular-season games to play. Despite the inexperience of Barclay and Dietrich-Smith – Barclay will start just his sixth career NFL game on Saturday and Dietrich-Smith his 11th – offensive line coach James Campen said they both have been solid at their positions.
“They are contributing and I think it’s a testament to them,” Campen said. “They’re hard-working guys that certainly have embraced the roles that they’ve been given. We’re very proud of those guys – that the game isn’t too big for them – and I think that’s important.”
Campen isn’t the only one who’s noticed. Rodgers – a quarterback who often relies on his offensive line giving him some extra time to keep plays alive – said he has been impressed by the play of both Barclay and Dietrich-Smith.
“I think Evan has done a great job,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been a fan of his for a couple years, excited about his growth. I think he brings a good energy to our offense and helps us with some of the up-tempo stuff we like to do. And Don has really grown. I think has been very beneficial for him moving forward, to be able to play extensively at right tackle and he’s given us some stability there. We still want him to get off to a good start every week, but you worry less and less about Don every week and that’s a tribute to how he’s played and how he’s prepared.”
Added Lang: “We feel confident next to each other. I know Evan stepped in and it was almost a seamless transition. He's a guy that's been around here for a long time, he's played a lot of football. And Donnie's really playing like a veteran out there. He's a guy you don't have to worry about, out there at right tackle, and he gets the job done.”
Still, despite the scrutiny that will be on the Packers’ offensive line on Saturday, Campen denied that notion that they felt they have something to prove against the 49ers.
“I think you want to prove a point every time you take the field,” Campen said. “I don't think it's heightened by anything. These guys work hard. They're very proud men and they display that every day.
“We don't try to mask if we have a bad game or we had a poor play, or something like that. We've had some of those, there’s no question. But at the same time, we've improved throughout the season. They say you have to play your best football in the playoffs because it's the next game and you don't want it to be your last game. As long as we're improving…they'll prove it to themselves. Externally, that kind of stuff doesn’t factor.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.