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Packers players to watch against Lions: Offensive line

This week, the opposing players to watch against the Detroit Lions are the Green Bay Packers' offensive linemen.

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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We are breaking new ground this week in "Player to Watch." I am not only boldly defying tradition by highlighting more than one player, but this marks the first time that offensive linemen have graced these pages. Why flaunt these important historical conventions? Because the performance of the Green Bay Packers' talented but inconsistent offensive line may hold the key to the Detroit Lions' Week 3 matchup.

Let's meet the starting cast. At left tackle, second-year player David Bakhtiari returns to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers' blind spot. After the Packers selected Bakhtiari in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, he faced a trial by fire in his rookie season after being forced into early action by an injury to starting tackle Bryan Bulaga. After giving up several big sacks early in the season -- none bigger than allowing a game-losing sack-fumble against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 -- Bakhtiari grew into a reliable starter throughout the season. However, Bakhtiari continues to struggle with collecting penalties, particularly holding calls. In 18 career games, he has racked up 14 penalties for a total of 114 yards. He has two already in the young 2014 season.

Next to Bakhtiari is left guard Josh Sitton. The seventh-year player moved from the right to left guard position for the first time last year and thrived. Pro Football Focus awarded him a +33.1 grade for the year and named him the most consistent of the Packers' linemen. Sports Illustrated lauded Sitton's 2013 performance and highlighted his ability to block on the move while executing pulls and traps.

At center, the Packers start rookie fifth-round draft pick Corey Linsley. Although "Cheesehead Nation" expressed a lot of concern in the offseason about entering the 2014 season with a rookie under center, Linsley has held his own. Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1, the Packers did not have a single false start penalty, and Linsley's only miscue, a premature snap, was negated by a timeout. In Week 2, Linsley and Rodgers did mishandle a snap on the first play of the game, which led to a fumble and a quick New York Jets score. Linsley's blocking is serviceable, but his chemistry with Rodgers is clearly still a work in progress.

Sixth-year player T.J. Lang will start at right guard for the Packers. Since taking over as a starter three years ago, Lang has only missed one start. While Pro Football Focus called out Lang for inconsistent play last year, he is a great athlete who has played numerous positions in his football career. After playing offensive and defensive tackle in college at Eastern Michigan, NFL scouts projected him as a guard at the pro level due to a skill set that lends itself more to drive-blocking than funneling defenders to the outside. Even at 318 pounds, Lang has quick hands and feet, as evidenced by his mere six holding calls in 77 career games.

Last and probably least, the right tackle position is somewhat of a mystery in Week 3. Former first-round pick Derek Sherrod replaced starter Bryan Bulaga in Week 1 after Bulaga went down with a knee injury. Sherrod was summarily dismantled by the Seahawks' pass-rushing attack, and he gave up sacks on back-to-back plays. This trend continued in Week 2, when Sherrod gave up an early sack in his first career start. While he did seem to settle down for the remainder of the game, he will certainly be the weak link in the Packers' O-line if he gets another start. Bulaga's Week 3 status remains up in the air, but given his injury history, he may play limited snaps even if he does start.

The Packers returned nearly the same offensive line group this season with the exception of replacing Ndamukong Suh-stompee Evan Dietrich-Smith, who left this offseason for Tampa Bay (and good riddance), with Linsley. In 2013, the group produced mixed results depending on who you ask. Football Outsiders rated the line as the fifth-best run-blocking line and the 26th-best pass-blocking line in the league. In contrast, Pro Football Focus ranked them 10th overall, with the third-best pass-protection rating and 17th-best run-blocking rating. Sports Illustrated cut to the chase and ranked them eighth overall entering the 2014 season. Curious.

Given these conflicting ratings, I'll put the numbers out there and let you form your own conclusion. The Packers gave up 45 sacks last year, or a sack on 8.3 percent of their passing attempts. This compares to an NFL average of 40 sacks, or a rate of 7.0 percent. In the running game, Packers running backs averaged 4.52 yards per carry last year compared with a league average of 4.10. The Packers also converted a higher percentage of running plays that required less than two yards for a first down or touchdown than any other team in the league.

In Week 3, it is imperative that the Lions win the battle in the trenches. In both games this season, Rodgers has been caught holding on to the ball too long as he looks for the home-run throw, resulting in sacks and throws under pressure. Given the Lions' obvious lack of skill and depth in the secondary, Rodgers will need much less time than he did against either the Seahawks or Jets. This means that the Lions' front seven will need to apply pressure quickly to disrupt the Packers' passing game. Luckily, the Packers' tackles struggle with providing protection against edge rushing. Last week against the Jets, Bakhtiari and Sherrod allowed the Jets' defensive ends to pressure Rodgers a combined eight times and allowed one sack. This may be the game that allows the Lions' ends to run free for the first time this season.

In the running game, second-year running back Eddie Lacy continues his hard-hitting career after returning from a Week 1 concussion. Lacy is a tough runner who the Packers line will try to open holes for with a combination of zone and man blocking. The Packers use a lot of interior blocking plays where one guard pulls and serves as the point-of-attack blocker for the running back. In this scheme, the center and non-pulling guard double-team one defensive tackle before the guard seeks out a linebacker at the second level. The Packers excel at this blocking scheme thanks to their athletic guard duo, and it allows Lacy to gain a head of steam before reaching smaller linebackers or defensive backs.

However, the strength of the Lions' defensive line is also on the interior. This puts the Lions and Packers lines into a strength-on-strength matchup, as both teams will seek to control the interior of the line of scrimmage. Linsley is the least experienced member of the Packers' line and has yet to mesh with Rodgers, but he has plenty of help from the Packers' top two linemen in Lang and Sitton. It is imperative that the Lions' defensive tackles establish themselves this week. Starting tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, as well as backup C.J. Mosley, must shed their initial blocks quickly and prevent the Packers' pulling linemen from reaching the second level. Plugging the center of the field will slow the Packers' rushing assault and allow the Lions to focus on exerting exterior pressure on Rodgers in the passing game.