Packers veteran Clifton tackles the tough questions
GREEN BAY -- One of the reasons Packers left tackle Chad Clifton is such an easy guy to like -- something that hasn't always been said about the men who've played his position over the years (see: Ruettgers, Ken) -- is that he's not only a straight-shooter who'll fess up when he's made a mistake, but he's got the kind of easy-going personality that he makes you feel like you're talking to one of your longtime buddies.
So when Clifton, who is notorious for avoiding the Packers locker room during weekday media access sessions, agreed to chat with me after the locker-room closed to reporters on Thursday, he did so knowing exactly what I wanted to talk about.
Clifton, who played in his first Pro Bowl last year as an injury replacement for Seattle's Walter Jones, received criticism from both coach Mike McCarthy ("Chad didn't have a very good day") and offensive line coach James Campen ("He's a Pro Bowl tackle that didn't play like one") in the aftermath of Sunday's loss to Atlanta.
Not the kind of stuff you're used to hearing. Generally, about anybody. But especially surprising about Clifton.
And so I asked him, "What's this I hear that you suck all of a sudden?"
Leaning against one of the fancy-schmanzy cherry-wood trash cans, Clifton laughed heartily, which is a good thing, because at 6 feet 5 inches and 320 pounds, it wouldn't have taken much for him to give me an up-close and upside-down look inside that trash can.
"The past few games, yeah, I've struggled. I haven't had my best games," Clifton said after practice, as he prepared for Sunday's game at Seattle. "No question about that. I definitely need to play better.
"I'm not going to make any excuses for my play. Point-blank, it boils down to this: I need to play better. I have to step up my game."
Against the Falcons, Clifton "had a tough day," Campen said. "He didn't play up to his standards. He didn't play very well." Keep in mind, though that had to leave the game during the third quarter with a hamstring injury originally suffered at Tampa Bay the week before.
"He had a poor game. And his fundamentals were poor. Certainly no one wants bad games, and you don't want successive games like that. But we'll get it fixed. It always comes back to fundamentals on the offensive line. Period. You cannot lose your fundamentals."
Some of Clifton's poor fundamental work, Campen said, traces back to his limited practice time. This week, for instance, he took part only in the early-practice jog-through period on Wednesday and Thursday before departing to do rehabilitation work with the athletic training staff.
That's been his schedule for the past several years because of two balky knees that tend to flare up on him when he doesn't limit his practice reps. Also, Clifton generally practiced only once-a-day in training camp.
"When you look at the past two or three years, that's what I've done. And it hasn't (been a problem). Not to this extent, I guess," Clifton said.
"Anytime you miss practice, you miss opportunities to get better -- not just better, but fundamentally sound," Campen said. "It's no different than weightlifting. If you expect to get strong in the weight room and you go and lift once a week, versus a guy who's lifting three times a week, that (second) person's growth is going to be better."
Specifically, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said Clifton's pad level has been high -- one of the coaching staff's most-preached fundamentals -- and his first-strike against on-rushing defensive linemen has been inconsistent.
"There's three things we teach in pass protection: A set, a punch and a mirror. And there's too many pictures where he's not getting his punch where it needs to be," Philbin said.
"Much like a boxer uses a jab to keep his opponent away from him, you want to use your punch to separate and get the guy to re-start. He's not getting that guy's momentum stopped initially, and then if your hands are in a bad spot and you don't stop his momentum, you get pushed back.
"I don't know if it's worrisome. I think it's just getting back to the things that made him such a productive player here in the past. I don't think it's a decaying of athletic skill or talent. I think maybe he just needs a little more attention to detail, a little more confidence, and I think if he does those things, he's going to be back in business."
Clifton, who has missed only one game -- because of food poisoning at Miami in 2006 -- since his Warren Sapp-inflicted career-threatening hip injury in 2002, figures to be listed as questionable when the official injury report comes out Friday.
While McCarthy said the coaching staff "talked about" sitting him down for a week, McCarthy said Thursday that if Clifton were to miss Sunday's game against the Seahawks, it would be solely because of his hamstring and not his performance.
For his part, Clifton, 32, says it won't come down to that.
"The hamstring, I don't think it's bad enough that I won't be able to play," said Clifton, who had a sit-down meeting with McCarthy earlier this week to discuss his play.
"It's just knowing the challenge and knowing what you have to do. That's the simple part -- I know I have to play better. And I know I'm fully capable of doing it. So it's not like I can't figure out what I'm doing wrong. I know what my mistakes are and I know what I have to do to correct it and get back to playing like my old self."
Gotta love ol' Cliffy. He may be having a sub-par year, but the skill level behind him is such a drop-off (Colledge, Moll, Guacamole) that i'll take his savvyness and old knees over anybody. The Clifton/Tauscher combo doesn't have much time left, we should enjoy it while we can. Go Pack!!
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