Sil­ver­stein: Justin McCray per­fect fit for way Pack­ers must play,

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Tom Sil­ver­stein

GREEN BAY – At some point in the next cou­ple of weeks, the Green Bay Pack­ers are go­ing to be tempted to re­place Justin McCray at right tackle with Ja­son Spriggs, their se­cond-round pick in 2016 who is ex­pected to come off in­jured reserve this week.

Spriggs strug­gled in train­ing camp, but he’s a phe­nom­e­nal ath­lete who de­voted his six weeks off from foot­ball be­cause of a ham­string in­jury to bulk­ing up in the weight room and build­ing back his con­fi­dence.

The 6-foot-6, 306-pound Spriggs was drafted to one day re­place Bryan Bu­laga, whose ca­reer took a bad turn this

sea­son with a se­cond torn ACL. If your pri­or­ity was to pro­tect Aaron Rodgers, you’d look for a guy with Spriggs’ length and ath­letic abil­ity.

But as the Pack­ers head into Week 11 hop­ing to keep their sea­son alive, they’d be fool­ish to con­sider any­body but the large-bel­lied, thick-legged, guard-man­nered McCray at right tackle.

Luck­ily for the Pack­ers, McCray had to play in space dur­ing his year in the Arena League and so he learned how to deal with speed rush­ers in a pass-first of­fense. He made the Pack­ers as a backup guard / cen­ter but has played more than 200 snaps at tackle be­cause of in­juries on the of­fen­sive line.

What makes McCray so ap­peal­ing dur­ing this pe­cu­liar sea­son is the force and at­ti­tude with which he plays, par­tic­u­larly in the run game. The Pack­ers don’t fa­vor run-block­ing over pass­block­ing abil­ity — for good rea­son given their quar­ter­back — but with backup Brett Hund­ley un­der cen­ter they need al­ter­na­tive ways to win games.

They need to be able to run the ball, say, 35 times for 144 yards and a touch­down, maybe in the rain and on the road and against the eighth-ranked de­fense in the NFL.

Some­thing like that.

Hund­ley’s two car­ries for 16 yards made it a nice round 160 yards rush­ing for the Pack­ers in their 23-16 vic­tory Sun­day over the Chicago Bears at Sol­dier Field, mark­ing the third time in five weeks they’ve gained 160 or more yards rush­ing. Last year, they reached 160 yards once in 19 games.

The Pack­ers have av­er­aged 4.0 yards per carry in five of nine games and rank fifth in the NFL with a 4.5 av­er­age.

To say this sud­den boost in rush­ing num­bers is due to McCray would be to ig­nore all the other fac­tors that have ac­counted for rush­ing suc­cess, in­clud­ing the ad­di­tion of rookie run­ning backs Aaron Jones and Ja­maal Wil­liams.

But it’s also hard to deny that when McCray has started, the Pack­ers have had un­canny suc­cess run­ning. In the five games he has played from start to fin­ish, the Pack­ers have rushed 115 times for 651 yards, an av­er­age of 5.66.

Against the Bears, McCray had the un­en­vi­able task of hav­ing to block their best de­fen­sive player, end Akiem Hicks, in many run­ning sit­u­a­tions and speed rusher Leonard Floyd on pass­ing plays.

The 6-3, 317-pound McCray did sur­pris­ingly well against Floyd, but the fun part of the day was watch­ing him mud wres­tle with the pow­er­ful Hicks.

On one se­quence, McCray took Hicks out of a run play with a cut play. Hicks, pip­ing hot over be­ing cut, knocked McCray on his butt on the next play. And on the next, the two locked onto each other with enough force to heat up both side­lines be­fore Hicks fi­nally sprung free at the end of the play.

McCray’s play isn’t al­ways pretty, but it comes with an at­ti­tude.

“When you look at Justin McCray, his play style and his strengths as far as his foot­work and his ath­letic abil­ity and power, it def­i­nitely plays to your ad­van­tage in the run game,” Pack­ers coach Mike McCarthy said. “But you can see that he had some things where (there were) some tough sit­u­a­tions in ad­just­ments we got into that weren’t as clean.

“But he’s a tough guy. What he’s done this year and played the mul­ti­ple po­si­tions, I can’t say enough about it. I just love the way he plays. He had a huge matchup in that game and he de­liv­ered.”

If you had a choice be­tween McCray and Bu­laga at right tackle, you’d take Bu­laga ev­ery time be­cause his pass block­ing is ter­rific and his run block­ing is ad­e­quate. But with the Pack­ers are keep­ing a tight leash on Hund­ley, the ad­di­tion of a pow­er­ful guard to the front five isn’t such a bad thing.

The Pack­ers need to run bet­ter than they ever have so that Hund­ley doesn’t have to carry the of­fense. McCray helps swing the em­pha­sis to the run game be­cause he will take on play­ers such as Hicks and make them work for what­ever they get.

“He’s a good run blocker,” guard Lane Tay­lor said. “He’s more phys­i­cal than your av­er­age tackle, just from his body type and his de­meanor, too. He’s a big body. He has that ag­gres­sion of a guard.

“I think it’s an ad­van­tage run-game wise.”

Tay­lor is the unit’s best run blocker and though right guard Jahri Evans is at the tail end of his ca­reer and not the player he once was, he made Pro Bowls be­cause he was a de­struc­tive run blocker and still has enough left that he gets used on pulling plays.

Throw in McCray and you have three pow­er­ful guards ca­pa­ble of maul­ing with any­one. The group still is work­ing through chem­istry is­sues, but McCray has helped re­place some of the to-the-whis­tle nas­ti­ness T.J. Lang pro­vided.

Still left on the Pack­ers’ sched­ule are the se­cond- (Carolina), third- (Min­nesota), fourth- (Cleve­land), 10th- (Detroit) and 11th- (Pitts­burgh) ranked run de­fenses in the NFL, so con­sis­tently pro­duc­ing rush­ing yards isn’t go­ing to be easy.

As­sum­ing the line is fi­nally sta­ble af­ter so many in­juries, the coaches can at least count on its side bring­ing some weight with its pads on ev­ery snap.

“I think our guys have been do­ing an out­stand­ing job just in the fin­ish of the play,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Edgar Bennett said. “That stands out. We talk about our play style, we talk about guys be­ing phys­i­cal, guys fin­ish­ing their blocks, that stood out on the tape.”

It’s what the Pack­ers have to come to ex­pect from McCray ev­ery play.

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