COMMENTARY | Coach Mike McCarthy has never allowed injuries to be an excuse for his team, but when he said, "Next man up," about rookie tackle Don Barclay, there had to be some reticence in his head.
It wasn't as if Barclay had looked like a bum against Minnesota last week in his emergency playing time. When T.J. Lang went down, you almost got the feeling that was it for Green Bay. They had dodged too many proverbial bullets to make it work.
Lang, who was only playing tackle because Bryan Bulaga was out for the season with a freak hip injury, went down and now you're talking about the back-up to the back-up. And good offensive tackles don't exactly grow on trees.
Making matters worse, Minnesota has one of the best pass-rushes in the NFL and the Vikings offense had been pulverizing the Packers defense.
So what did the Packers do? They ran it toward the rookie and right at Minnesota's Brian Robison. Alex Green and James Starks combined to rush for almost 120 yards including the go-ahead score by Starks.
That score was a sweep to Barclay's side.
Sunday night's game against Detroit started where last week's game ended as the Lions beat up the Packers' defensive front and marched the ball down the field twice in a row to go up 14-0. Ndamukong Suh had even lined up a few snaps at defensive end, specifically matching him up with Barclay and one of those plays resulted in a strip sack for the Lions.
Barclay, though, didn't get down. He didn't false start once trying to deal with the edge rushers of the Lions and although he did get help in protection, Barclay held up his end of the bargain in the passing game.
In 20 rushes by running backs against the Lions, the Packers ran to Barclay's side on 12 of them for 75 yards. That's over 6 yards per carry. DuJuan Harris' 14-yard touchdown run to give Green Bay its first lead was to the right side, as was Aaron Rodgers' 27-yard touchdown scamper.
Two years ago when the Packers won the Super Bowl they were ravaged by injuries and ended up having to start their rookie right tackle for the stretch run. While the similarities between this team and the 2010 team are not as vast as Al Michaels would have you believe - if you want a good drinking game, watch Sunday night's game on DVR and drink every time Michaels brings up the 2010 Packers - there is precedent for Green Bay to play well with rookie offensive linemen.
Furthermore, if you watched the last two weeks, it was veteran Evan Dietrich-Smith who has struggled more than Barclay, if for no other reason than it is harder to give a guard help than a tackle.
When a tackle struggles, you can chip, keep a right end in, roll the quarterback opposite or utilize any number of other play designs to help hide that match-up. With a guard, and you've seen it a number of times the past few weeks, you can't protect him as well, particularly against the bull rush which is where Dietrich-Smith is most vulnerable.
The question isn't whether or not Barclay is a better option at tackle than Dietrich-Smith is at guard, because frankly, that doesn't matter.
Lang is a better guard than he is tackle and the rushing game has actually been more productive with Barclay in the lineup. Slide Lang back to his natural position and you've shored up both the interior in pass-protection and put yourself in a position to have a so-called 'strong side' in your rushing attack.
Mike McCarthy has already decided the right side with Barclay is the strong side, rushing to that side 60% of the time on Sunday. That production not only piles up yards on drives like the go-ahead drive Green Bay had Sunday where they didn't throw once, but also softens up defensive ends as the game wears on.
The recipe for neutralizing pass-rushers has long been to run right at them. It prevents them from getting off on the snap and blazing up the field if they're worried about gap responsibilities in the run game. But even if McCarthy was just trying to give Barclay that advantage, the plays worked.
Green Bay ran the ball with remarkable efficiency to Barclay's side, despite losing James Starks who appeared ready to carry more of the load. Alex Green had his best day as a Packer rushing mostly to the right side.
In order to finish out the season and make a Super Bowl push, the Packers will need to be balanced and that means running the game. Can they do it with Dietrich-Smith at guard and Lang at tackle? Maybe, but they certainly hadn't shown much this season as a pair.
The teams who have beaten the contenders in the NFC like San Francisco, Atlanta and New York have done it with balance. Green Bay has proven itself a contender this season and is finally showing its balance. Keeping it up means keeping a rookie in the lineup.
In Week 14, it's too late to be calling anyone a rookie. Mike McCarthy isn't calling him a rookie, he's just calling for the next man up. Barclay has been that and more so far for Green Bay.
Peter Bukowski is a Wisconsin transplant living in New York and has been covering sports since 2007. He is an award-winning television and newspaper reporter. Follow him on Twitter @BukoTime.
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