Sunday, January 11, 2004

Eagles face strong Packers' offensive line

Green Bay Press-Gazette

Ahman Green was crossing midfield when a Green Bay Packers fan seated near the south end zone at Lambeau Field made a telling observation.

"Did you see (Kevin) Barry's block?" he said during Green's record-setting 98-yard touchdown run against Denver.

The comment, relayed by a friend, wasn't surprising.

Longtime Packers fans, especially ones who cut their teeth on Vince Lombardi's Glory Years teams, seem to pay more attention than most to offensive line play.

"There's no question the Packers' sweep put the offensive line on the map," said Fred "Fuzzy" Thurston, the left guard on Lombardi's great teams.

"It's natural for fans to watch the quarterback, receivers and running backs, but Packers fans in general seem to pay closer attention and they certainly notice if somebody's not doing their job."

While it's true that offensive linemen usually get noticed only when they screw up, the Packers' offensive line is an exception. Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, Mark Tauscher and even backup Kevin Barry have a fair amount of celebrity in the NFL's smallest city.

Some of that comes from blocking for a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre, and a Pro Bowl running back in Green, but it's more than that.

When the Packers face the Eagles in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game at Philadelphia, fans will be scrutinizing the offensive line's play early on. They know that the Packers' key to success rests largely on the line's massive shoulders. If the Packers can run the ball effectively enough to slow down the Eagles' blitz package, and if the line is alert and effective picking it up, Green Bay's offense will be difficult to stop.

For those reasons, Thurston gives the Packers at least a puncher's chance to knock out the Eagles and advance to the NFC championship game.

"I can't remember since we've played that I've seen a better offensive line as a total unit," he said. "It's a pretty tough group."

Flanagan, the line's anchor, stopped short of saying the Packers have a great chance to win if the line excels.

"I would say we'd be in good shape, not great shape, because there are a lot of other factors," Flanagan said. "If we're playing well, that means Ahman's getting his yardage and Brett's being protected, and it means we're usually being productive."

Thurston said he's especially impressed with Flanagan's play at center.

"It all starts with the center," he said. "That's the toughest job and we have a terrific center. He's very, very good. He has the potential in the next five, seven years to be compared with the Jim Ringos, the Mike Websters, that caliber of player."

The Packers' offensive line has put up some extraordinary numbers this season. Favre attempted 471 passes and was sacked just 19 times. Green rushed for 1,883 yards, but Najeh Davenport (420 yards) and Tony Fisher (200 yards) also have had room to run.

Clearly, offensive line coach Larry Beightol deserves kudos for fine-tuning this talented bunch and challenging it to improve each day. The line also has been fortunate in that none of the starters has missed a game this season.

Furthermore, the offensive line's personality mirrors the quarterback's. They like to have fun and enjoy each other's company, but when it's time to get to work, they roll up their sleeves and get after it.

The Packers' line also has a habit of bouncing back from subpar performances.

"We realize when we play well and when we don't," Tauscher said, "so we're not afraid to fess up. We didn't feel like last week we got done what we were supposed to get done (in the running game). We definitely want to get it straightened out and get it back to at least 100 (yards), if not more."

The Packers' offensive line of the 1960s played together for nine years with Bob Skoronski at left tackle, Thurston at left guard, Jerry Kramer at right guard and Forrest Gregg at right tackle. Ringo, Bill Curry and Ken Bowman played center during the era.

Thurston said they were able to seek and attain perfection because of their longevity. He said the Packers' current line could be "special" if it was able to stay together for the next five years.

"If they stayed together for five years, I bet Brett would play another five years," Thurston said.

Tauscher knows the names of the Packers' great offensive linemen of the '60s, but he said it is far too premature to mention this year's group and Lombardi's linemen in the same breath.

"In order to even start thinking about that, we have to finish this off and keep it going," he said. "Those guys had it made. They won five or six titles. That's what legends are made of. You're not a legend for winning a couple of games. You've got to finish the whole deal off and everybody in here realizes that."

Packers at Eagles

Records: Green Bay 11-6, Philadelphia 12-4.

When: 4:45 p.m. today (Ch. 19, 45).

Marquee value: The NFL's hottest team in the playoffs, with five consecutive victories, Green Bay keeps riding a wave of emotion that began when QB Brett Favre's father, Irvin, died suddenly Dec. 21.

What the Packers must do to win: Green Bay's defense needs to find some pass rush but also must keep Eagles QB Donovan McNabb from making big plays.

What the Eagles must do to win: If they don't restrain Packers RB Ahman Green, who rushed for 192 yards against them in the previous meeting, they'll also have a difficult time reining in Favre.

Last time they met: The Eagles beat the Packers 17-14 on Nov. 10.

Who will win: The resourceful and resilient Eagles will find a way to advance to their third consecutive NFC title game.

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