Published December 22, 2012
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jeff Saturday has one Super Bowl ring and was looking forward to having a chance to play for another with the Green Bay Packers getting ready to return to the playoffs.
His role in helping the NFC North champions try to make a deep run in the postseason has changed before the playoffs even started.
Coach Mike McCarthy has decided to take Saturday, a 14-year veteran in his first season with the Packers, out of the starting lineup at center and replace him with Evan Dietrich-Smith with two games left in the regular season. Green Bay (10-4) hosts the Tennessee Titans (5-9) on Sunday.
"We will probably go with Evan Dietrich-Smith to start the game," McCarthy said Friday.
Although Saturday has been coping with neck and shoulder injuries and didn't get on the practice field this week until the team held a short workout Friday, McCarthy indicated the late-season change isn't due to medical reasons. Saturday is probable for the game.
"Obviously as a player, you want to play," Saturday said. "But I support Evan, and I know he's a great player. He'll get the job done and do what he needs to do to play well and get us a win."
Saturday doesn't believe his recent health issues are a factor in the potential shake-up.
"I don't think so," he said. "I haven't been able to go this week, but when you look at it, I think Evan has worked hard, played good. Give him a chance to go see what he can do at center and see how he plays. I should be ready to go (Sunday), so I don't think that really has any kind of factor of what's happening."
Dietrich-Smith, 26, a third-year player, is 11 years younger than Saturday and has started only seven games as a pro. This would be Dietrich-Smith's first NFL start at center.
Conversely, Saturday has logged 220 starts (including the playoffs) and is a five-time Pro Bowler, most of his work coming at center with the Indianapolis Colts when Peyton Manning was the quarterback.
"It's obviously an honor," Dietrich-Smith said. "I've got a lot of respect for Jeff. I'm just going out there to help the team win as best I can, and this is the move they want to make. I'm just going to do my job."
Dietrich-Smith recently started four straight games for the Packers at left guard after they lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a season-ending hip injury and filled the void by moving left guard T.J. Lang outside. Lang suffered an ankle injury Dec. 2, missed the next game and was replaced at right tackle by undrafted rookie Don Barclay.
When Lang returned for Green Bay's division-clinching win at Chicago last Sunday, he was back at left guard, Barclay stayed at right tackle and Dietrich-Smith was back on the bench.
McCarthy said center is the best position for the versatile Dietrich-Smith, an undrafted free agent out of Idaho State in 2009. He started 44 games playing four different positions in college but never at center.
"Honestly, I think it's still going to be a little bit of learning out there on the fly with the guys and getting some chemistry. I think that's the biggest part," Dietrich-Smith said. "Comfort-level-wise, yeah, center's somewhere that I feel really comfortable at. But you still in the NFL, the chemistry you've got with the five guys up front, that's a big thing, and I think we've got to develop it out there Sunday."
What Dietrich-Smith has going for him in getting the supposed starting nod at center is the support of Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's quarterback made favorable comments about Dietrich-Smith earlier in the season, referring to him as the team's center of the future.
"I always take appreciation for him backing me so much, and I've always tried to take advantage of my opportunities," Dietrich-Smith said. "For him to go out there and say he's got a lot of faith in me means a lot to me."
Saturday said it was "disappointing and tough."
"I'm here to play football," he said. "I told coach, I came here to win a Super Bowl. Winning the NFC North is great, but that wasn't why I was here. I looked for more of the postseason. It's disappointing from that side. If coach McCarthy thinks that gives us the best chance to win and go on and do things in the postseason, then that's what it is."
Saturday is under contract for two years, but referred to himself as a "stopgap."
"You're 37 years old. I've been around this thing long enough to know that it's not a long future. I think if (Dietrich-Smith) plays well I wouldn't think they'd go back and make another change," he said.
NOTES: The Packers won't have veteran S Charles Woodson and WR Jordy Nelson for another game Sunday. Both players were ruled out Friday. Woodson, who practiced on a limited basis this week, hasn't played the last two months because of a broken collarbone. Nelson, who has been bothered by a hamstring injury, will miss a third straight game. Woodson spoke after practice Friday and said he isn't sure whether he will have a chance to play in the regular-season finale Dec. 30 at Minnesota to get him some game action before the playoffs. "I don't feel like I have to play in it, but it'd be great to just get out there and play football," Woodson said. DE C.J. Wilson (knee), RB James Starks (knee) and TE Tom Crabtree (hamstring) also are out.