GREEN BAY, Wis.
There’s a pretty good chance that rookie center Corey Linsley won’t be overmatched physically when he makes his first career start tonight for the Green Bay Packers.
The Boardman High graduate almost always was stronger than the guy across from him while at Ohio State, and while the competition he’ll face in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field will be a big step up from there, people around the Packers facility don’t seem to doubt he can handle it.
The biggest challenge Linsley will face is maintaining his cool while declaring to his linemates which guy they’re supposed to block, a key part of the center’s job. It’s not that hard of an assignment if you’ve got all 35 seconds of the play clock to do it, but if you’re in the Packers’ fast-paced, no-huddle offense you need to be right and fast.
“Just get everybody on the same page as quickly as possible,” Linsley said “Just going up to the line. If everybody knows where the starting point is and they don’t like the starting point, they can adjust.”
Since this is the first game of the year, the challenge is enormous for a rookie like Linsley, who found himself in this position when JC Tretter suffered a knee injury against the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 22. Linsley had to step in right away knowing he would be the starter against Seattle.
Physically, Linsley has held his own all camp. He tied for second at the scouting combine for the most reps on the bench with 36 and did well coming off combination blocks where either he or the guard slips off a double-team and seeks out a linebacker.
But he does not have Tretter’s tremendous ability to shift his feet and turn defenders away from the play or recover as quickly when he gets in trouble. And among the foes he’ll face tonight are 6-foot-7, 305-pound defensive tackle Tony McDaniel and 12-year veteran and former Minnesota Viking Kevin Williams.
Linsley’s performance through the preseason was impressive for a rookie, but he’s done playing against the other teams’ No. 2 and 3 defenses.
The assignment is especially brutal for reasons beyond the fact he is a rookie getting ready to play in the loudest venue in the NFL. This is the first regular-season game of the year and typically both teams add wrinkles to their scheme that are different from what they showed on tape over the last couple of years.
The Seahawks have known for a while that Linsley will be the starter and you can bet they have plans to test him mentally. They also know he’s all the Packers have at center unless they want to shift one of their starting guards.
“Usually the first three, four, five weeks you’re going to see, you know, 30 percent unscouted looks,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “So you expect that, you know, it’s going to happen, you just have to react to what you see out there. Make quick decisions, smart decisions and it’s going to be on both sides.”
Linsley won’t be alone when it comes to making the right call. Lining up on either side of him are two veterans who will make adjustments if they think Linsley doesn’t have the right protection set up.
Since Linsley became the starter, guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, have offered lots of advice and told him that they will have his back. The three did not play together because the two guards didn’t dress for the exhibition finale against Kansas City, so their work has been in practice.
“I can’t even put into words how much help those guys have given me,” Linsley said. “They talk to me when they need to talk to me. Anytime I might not make the right call or the best call, they always have my back — ‘We’ve got to do this’, ‘OK, I’ve got you’ — it’s never jump down my throat.
“They understand I’m working out there and doing the best I can.”
Lang and Sitton are not the only helpers Linsley will have. Many times, Rodgers sets the protection first and the line adjusts from there, so Rodgers can help by anticipating what the defense is going to do.
Then, there’s fullback John Kuhn.
It’s not known how much Kuhn will play, but he knows the offense almost as well as Rodgers and he has been known to run up to the line and make a blocking adjustment or make sure the linemen see what he and Rodgers see.
“I think actually our entire offense, the guys between the tackles, fullback, quarterback, we’re all able to help each other out with looks we all have to be familiar with,” Kuhn said. “It’s not like Corey has to make every call by himself.
“We are a team out there and we’re responsible for letting Corey make the right call. If he’s a split-second slow with it, we’re going to be right there to help him.”
Speed is essential when you’re running a no-huddle offense because the faster you go, the less time you leave the defense to adjust and the more you can dictate the pace of the game. The question becomes, do you slow down to make sure Linsley has made the right call or do you try to keep the tempo consistent?
“It can go hand in hand,” Kuhn said. “A quick, good call is probably better than a slow, perfect call.”
Based on what the Packers have seen they do not expect Linsley to get rattled even if the Seahawks cause him problems. Throughout training camp, he never suffered any major setbacks or fell into a slump.
Coach Mike McCarthy could have signed a veteran to handle the job once Tretter went down, but he has put his faith in Linsley. He expects him to keep his composure throughout the night.
“Mentally, he’s sharp,” said backup quarterback Matt Flynn, who played with Linsley a lot during the exhibition games. “He’s not like a real fire-up guy, he’s not like a real hyper guy. He’s a calm, collected guy. Nothing seems to get to him.”
A national television audience will find out whether that’s true tonight.