It’s a long shot, but group could match Dolphins’ NFL record for fewest sacks

By Pete Dougherty

The Green Bay Packers are protecting Brett Favre nearly as well as any team has protected its quarterback in NFL history.

Favre has been sacked five times in 10 games this season, which is on pace for eight sacks for the year. The NFL record for fewest sacks allowed in a season is seven, set by the Dan Marino-led Miami Dolphins in 1988.

With six games still to play, beginning Monday night against St. Louis, the Packers will need an extraordinary finish to tie the Dolphins’ record, let alone beat it.

But they’ve had five sackless games already this season, so while breaking or even tying the record has to be considered a long shot, it’s also not out of reach.

“If we give up less than eight sacks, it would be a pretty incredible feat,” said Mark Tauscher, the Packers’ right tackle. “I don’t think we’re going to sit here and dwell on it. The most important thing is to be effective moving the ball. But it’s something, if we can break it, we’d like to do it.”

The five sacks in 10 games is barely one-fourth of the league average of 22.9, and only two other teams are in single digits for sacks allowed: Indianapolis (six) and Denver (seven).

It’s also a continuation of the Packers’ excellent pass protection last season, when they set the team record for fewest sacks allowed in a 16-game season with 19.

Perhaps most surprising is that the Packers are protecting Favre better than ever without starting center Mike Flanagan, who was lost for the season in Week 4 because of a patellar-tendon injury. Grey Ruegamer, a sixth-year pro with only three career starts coming into the season, has recovered from a shaky start in his first game against the New York Giants.

All in all, things are going so well that some of the offensive linemen fear jinxing themselves.

“Just talking about it makes me nervous,” guard Marco Rivera said.

As in the running game, pass protection is very much a collective effort. Halfback Ahman Green, the NFL’s eighth-leading rusher, helps because opponents have to honor his play-action fakes. The running backs and fullbacks play an important role in protection, too, both in picking up blitzes and chip blocking before they go into their pass routes.

Also, Favre has an excellent sense for pass rushers closing in, and though he’s not the scrambling threat he was several years ago, he’s still adept at avoiding rushers and making throws outside the pocket.

Nevertheless, the offensive line is the key to pass protection, and the Packers’ line is peaking with the bulk of that group in its fourth season starting together. Coach Mike Sherman ensured that continuity by re-signing left tackle Chad Clifton as the protector of Favre’s blind side for a $10 million bonus this past offseason. Clifton may be only an adequate drive blocker in the run game but has the footwork and balance of a first-rate pass protector.

Guards Rivera and Mike Wahle are possible Pro Bowl candidates, and Tauscher is approaching the level of play he showed before blowing out his knee in 2002. Losing Flanagan was costly, because he’s one of the most mobile centers in the NFL, but that’s shown up more in the running game, where he was quick enough to get out on linebackers, than in the passing game.

Those four have played together since 2001 and are held together by linchpin Larry Beightol, the offensive line coach. The 62-year-old Beightol is in his sixth season with the Packers and is respected as one of the better offensive-line coaches in the NFL.

Beightol has been drilling this group with his hard coaching style since it has been together, though now that they’re veterans, he’s not as boisterous as in the past.

“He’s just a stickler for detail. He’s always harping at us,” Rivera said. “If hand placement isn’t right or footwork isn’t right, he’s going to let you know about it in his own way. He keeps us honest. As players we shouldn’t allow ourselves to slack off, but when you have a coach that looks at that and doesn’t let down, it becomes part of you.”

Though the Rams rank in the bottom quarter of the league (26th) in sack percentage, Monday night’s game presents a considerable threat to the Packers’ pass protection for two reasons: The potential absence of Green and the presence of St. Louis’ Leonard Little, who’s among the handful of top outside pass rushers in the NFL.

Green is a premier running back, so if he doesn’t play — he’s questionable (50 percent chance of playing) because of sprained ribs — the Packers’ play-action game will lose its edge.

Also, Little is an explosive outside rusher at left end who had 39 sacks combined from 2001 to 2003 but has only 4½ this season against constant double-teaming. The Rams are beginning to move him around the line of scrimmage on passing downs to avoid those double teams, though more often than not, he’ll be up against Tauscher. The Packers generally plan not to help one of their offensive linemen regularly unless that player struggles early.

“You’re paid to block people,” Tauscher said. “I fully expect I’ll hold up very well.”