Packers discover depth on offensive line
Green Bay — When Josh Sitton was forced to play left tackle for a winner-take-all division showdown with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, the guy who replaced him at left guard was Lane Taylor.
So, when Taylor walked into a Green Bay Packers meeting room last week Tuesday and offensive line coach James Campen told him he was going to start at left tackle two days later, Taylor shouldn’t have been surprised.
The Packers don’t pigeonhole their offensive linemen, even though it would be easier to teach them one position when they walk through the door for the first time. They force their linemen to train at multiple positions and sometimes make them play at positions they’ve never played before.
Taylor had trained at both guard positions but had not worked at tackle.
“I think I had one rep during the spring game of my sophomore year, at right tackle,” Taylor said, recalling the last time he had played tackle. “I didn’t even do a pass set or anything.”
It didn’t matter to Campen, who going into a division showdown with the Chicago Bears was missing all five of his tackles due to a rash of injuries.
He already was playing with guard/center Justin McCray at right tackle in place of Bryan Bulaga (ankle), so why not give Taylor a shot at left tackle?
And for good measure, why not go with a fourth guard, Lucas Patrick, even though it would be the second-year pro’s first plays from scrimmage?
When the night was through, all 3 hours 52 minutes of it — including a 46-minute weather delay — the Packers had improved their record to 3-1 with a 35-14 victory accomplished with four guards on their offensive line.
“We came into the season with technically five tackles. All five tackles are hurt,” said left tackle David Bakhtiari, who missed a third straight game but was hopeful of returning in 10 days for Dallas. “You go into the season with a position that’s your strength and next thing you know you have your left guard playing left tackle doing a phenomenal job with it.”
Three of the tackles — Kyle Murphy (foot), Jason Spriggs (hamstring) and Don Barclay (ankle) are on injured reserved — so there literally are no backup tackles available.
McCray was acutely aware of that after starting for Bulaga in Week 2 and replacing him in the fourth quarter of Week 3. And Taylor was smacked on the forehead with it when he came to work expecting to prepare for another start at left guard.
“I said, ‘All right,’ ” Taylor replied when asked how he reacted. “So I just drowned myself in tackle knowledge and watching film and everything. I was still even watching the guard on film by accident when I was studying.
“I got a couple non-padded reps on Saturday (actually Wednesday). I had Clay (Matthews) go kind of hard at me and (Chris) Odom. That’s all I really did.”
All Taylor did last Thursday night was help quarterback Aaron Rodgers (18 of 26 for 169 yards and four touchdowns) stay upright most of the game and the backs rush for a seasonhigh 92 yards on 23 carries (3.8 avg.). Rodgers was only knocked to the ground twice — both on sacks — and had to do only a fair amount of running outside the pocket.
Neither sack came through Taylor, which was more than Sitton could say two years ago when he had to make an emergency start.
“I think I did all right,” said Taylor, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million extension right before the regular-season started. “I didn’t get Aaron hit, so that’s good. I didn’t give up any sacks. “I’ll take it.” Coach Mike McCarthy will, too. And not only that, but Pat- rick’s performance as well.
To be clear, it wasn’t as if the Packers moved the ball up and down the field against the Bears. Rather than put his tackles on islands and force them to take on pass rushers Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks, Willie Young and Pernell McPhee, McCarthy surrounded his “tackles” with tight ends, limited deep quarterback drops and ran the ball whenever he could.
He did nothing that would expose Rodgers for extended periods of time and counted on his defense to keep the Bears in check.
“I think we built a good game plan,” Bakhtiari said. “We were able to play to our strengths and we were able to execute it. My hats off to them. That’s awesome.”
When the Packers kept McCray and Patrick on the 53man roster after training camp, many people questioned whether they were capable of filling in for center Corey Linsley if he were hurt. No one was counting on them starting together in a key divisional game in Week 4.
Since neither had taken a snap in an NFL game, they were considered long shots to even make an appearance this season, especially given the good health of the offensive line last season. But the Packers don’t do the developmental thing.
Even though they keep a lot of young players on their roster, they expect them to maintain the standard of play if they have to replace a starter. It’s a tall order for two players who weren’t drafted coming out of college and might not have made the roster had Barclay not gotten hurt in training camp.
“That’s what they tell you, when you’re on the roster you’re expected to be ready to play,” McCray said. “No excuses. Wherever you’re told to play at, you have to play.”
Perhaps the best part of what the Packers’ offensive line accomplished, other than being on the winning side, is that Taylor proved he could play left tackle if they ever need him again and McCray and Patrick received snaps they would never have been able to replicate in practice.
Neither McCray nor Patrick is who you would want to anchor your offensive line the entire season, but they were serviceable and did enough to help the Packers escape a desperate situation.
They are a product of Campen’s insistence that they learn multiple positions and they now have NFL experience on their résumés, which was not the case four weeks ago.
“I think we just know that Lane can play left tackle if we need it and Lucas can play left guard if we need,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, we’d love to get Bryan and David back at some point, but we stand here today feeling like we have more depth and more confidence in those guys than we did yesterday.
“So, I’m really proud of those guys.”
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers gestures during a play last Thursday against the Bears. Green Bay’s offensive line, missing its starting tackles, helped pave the way for a 35-14 victory.