Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Veteran tackle tandem holds the line

Clifton, Tauscher have given Packers reliable pass protection for nearly a decade

September 27, 2008

By Rob Demovsky

Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher probably have no business being one of the most formidable offensive tackle duos in the NFL.

Not when you consider Clifton probably never should have recovered from the devastating injury he sustained nearly six years ago.

Not when you consider almost no one had Tauscher pegged for NFL success.

To understand how this unlikely duo became stalwarts for the Green Bay Packers, it is necessary to go back to the beginning, when their seemingly different paths to professional football crossed.

Clifton was a highly touted prospect who was the 44th player taken in the 2000 draft after an award-winning college career at Tennessee, while Tauscher was an afterthought pick taken 224th overall in the same draft after spending just one season as a starter at the University of Wisconsin, where he began his career as a walk-on.

A long shot to even make the roster, Tauscher was the first to crack the starting lineup when in Week 2 of his rookie season, veteran right tackle Earl Dotson’s balky back seized on him. Clifton got his chance in Week 7 after the Packers benched Mike Wahle, who was a flop as a left tackle.

Since Clifton joined Tauscher in the lineup on Oct. 15, 2000, against the San Francisco 49ers, the two have proven inseparable and irreplaceable. They even sustained the only major injuries of their careers in the same season — in 2002, when Clifton’s pelvis was separated in a jarring hit by Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp and when Tauscher tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Clifton missed the final six games of the season and Tauscher the final 14.

Other than that stretch, the duo has been a mainstay on the offensive line. Heading into Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay, only one other tackle combination in the league has more combined starts than Clifton and Tauscher’s 224. The duo ranks second behind Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas of the Philadelphia Eagles, who have 331 combined starts.

Since Week 7 of the 2000 season, when Clifton and Tauscher began their run together, the Packers have allowed 175 sacks. Only the Indianapolis Colts (with 164) have allowed fewer sacks during that period.

Much goes into preventing sacks — running backs picking up blitzes, quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quickly, receivers getting open downfield, interior linemen blocking defensive tackles — but it’s the right tackle and the left tackle who face the best pass rushers down in and down out.

“A ton of it is those guys,” said Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who began his NFL coaching career as the team’s assistant offensive line coach in 2003. “Yeah, those guys are a huge part of that. It’s a team thing, but absolutely, it’s a big credit to those guys.”

Clifton and Tauscher have not gained much notoriety — they have just one Pro Bowl appearance between them (by Clifton in 2007) — but they have given their coaches little reason to be concerned about their play.

“They don’t keep us up at night,” Philbin said. “It’s not to say we don’t help those guys when we can, but they don’t require us to do a lot of double teaming because of their ability and their latitude and the effort that they put forth.”

Perhaps the only issue with the bookends on the offensive line has been Clifton’s health. Managing and maintaining his body has become a full-time job. His pelvis injury may have contributed to his chronic knee problems. But third-year Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes he has found a way to preserve Clifton. In training camp, Clifton almost never practiced twice in a day. During the regular season, he usually takes part in very little practice on Wednesdays, then goes full speed on Thursdays before scaling back on Fridays.

“We’ve always had Chad, since my time here, on a certain schedule because of his knees, and we’ve stuck to that,” McCarthy said. “Actually, last year was much better than the first year, and he seems to be doing hopefully the same this year. I think the Wednesdays where he is a limited participant and then goes full on Thursday really helps him, and then we’re smart with him on Fridays.”

Clifton said: “That’s been huge, no question about that. Coach has done a great job with resting some veteran players that might need it throughout the week. No question that helps me be a little bit fresher.”

Perhaps only cornerback Charles Woodson, who has battled multiple injuries yet missed only two games in the last two-plus seasons, practices less than Clifton. Remarkably, Clifton’s level of play has not declined appreciably, if at all.

“I don’t know that you’re going to get three butt-kicking practices out of him every week,” Philbin said. “But again, he’s seen twists before. He’s seen blitzes before. He’s been doing it for a while, and you know the fundamentals don’t change that we teach in pass protection. We always tell him the quickest point between A and B is a straight line, so get your body on that line and at least make (the defender) go around and take him off that line. That’s as simple as we can make it. Chad’s quickness, his ability to get out of his stance enables him to get his body in front. Then you’ve got a big man who’s got an excellent lower body. He can bend. He’s got balance. He’s got quick feet. So he can mirror (the defender), and he’s got pretty good punch and separation. That’s a hard guy to beat.

“He’s been a warrior. He’s a guy you can sleep at night knowing he’s going to be blocking probably an excellent rusher on a weekly basis.”

In Week 1 of this season, Clifton put on a near dominating performance against Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, one of the marquee free agents of the offseason. If Clifton has a weakness, it’s that he probably isn’t the prototypical left tackle for McCarthy’s zone-blocking running game, but his pass- protection skills make him indispensable.

Tauscher showed his value in last season’s NFC divisional playoff game against Seattle. He shut down Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kearney, who had no sacks and no tackles.

“He’s playing well and having another solid year,” Philbin said. “You take him for granted probably. You just count on a solid performance out of that guy on a weekly basis.”

Tauscher, 31, is in the final year of his contract but probably will warrant a contract extension.

“I definitely feel like I’ve got three or four more good years in me,” Tauscher said. “We’ll see how it all plays out, but I feel from a health standpoint really good.”

The two ninth-year veterans don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

“I tell you what, it’s flown by,” said Clifton, who is 32 and under contract through 2009. “Time has definitely flown by. I can’t believe I’m in my ninth year right now.”

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