GREEN BAY — Their quarterback isn’t coming back anytime soon — if at all this season. But the guys protecting his replacement might finally — finally — be all together when the Green Bay Packers’ bye week concludes and the team returns to work Tuesday.
After starting seven offensive line combinations in their first seven games, it appears the Packers will have their preferred starting five — David Bakhtiari at left tackle, Lane Taylor at left guard, Corey Linsley at center, Jahri Evans at right guard and Bryan Bulaga at right tackle — for their Nov. 6 Monday Night Football game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.
And that should give Aaron Rodgers’ replacement, Brett Hundley, a significant lift after he struggled both in the team’s Oct. 14 loss at Minnesota after Rodgers fractured his right collarbone and in last week’s loss at home to the New Orleans Saints.
“We’ve talked about this on a regular basis: The best offensive lines are the ones that line up and play each and every week — and, more importantly, practice together,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said before players departed Monday afternoon for their bye week off. “That will definitely be a boost, just to have the continuity of those five.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that the Packers were blessed with tremendous fortune on the line. In 2014, their preferred five starters missed a grand total of one start. (Bulaga missed a Week 2 game against the New York Jets after injuring his knee in the regular-season opener at Seattle.)
Among the many reasons the Packers advanced to the NFC Championship Game that year — and were 3 minutes away from a Super Bowl berth before … well, you know the rest — was the continuity on the offensive line. While Rodgers won his second NFL MVP award that year and the defense morphed into an elite-level unit after linebacker Clay Matthews moved inside, the line’s remarkable good health was also a difference-maker.
“Anytime you get that group of men working together, that continuity, it helps. Without a doubt,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “Those guys being on the same page, working as one, the communication … it helps when those five guys are out there together, being on the same page and executing.”
Having arguably the best quarterback in the game, of course, makes a colossal difference as well, but Rodgers spent his bye week convalescing in Southern California following surgery on Oct. 19. Placed on injured reserve the next day, he isn’t allowed to practice for another four weeks and isn’t eligible to play in a game until the Packers’ Dec. 17 game at Carolina, but there’s no established timeline for how quickly his collarbone will heal or how soon he might be cleared to return.
McCarthy reiterated last week the “worst-case scenario” is Rodgers is done for the year. The Packers also could decide not to bring him back even if he is healthy enough to play in the final week or two of the regular season if the team has been eliminated from playoff contention.
At 4-3, the Packers are a game back of the Vikings in the NFC North and entered today’s games tied with Carolina for the sixth-best record in the NFC, behind Philadelphia (6-1), Minnesota (5-2), the Los Angeles Rams (5-2), Seattle (4-2) and New Orleans (4-2).
“It’s just a matter of not thinking the ship’s going down,” said Linsley, who along with Evans are the only two offensive line starters yet to miss a game this season. “We’re 4-3 at the bye. Obviously, we would’ve liked to be undefeated at this point. But, we’re getting better. We’re focused on the right things. And we’ll be there (at the end).”
The best news for Hundley, who enters next week’s game having completed only 31 of 59 passes (52.5 percent) for 244 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions (40.5 rating), is every offensive position around him should be at full strength going into the final nine games.
His top three receivers — Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams — are each healthy, though now the challenge for Hundley and the coaches will be to get them more involved than they have been since Rodgers’ injury. At tight end, the Packers need veteran Martellus Bennett to overcome his issues with drops, but they also have former starter Richard Rodgers to whom they could give more playing time if Bennett’s inconsistency continues.
And at running back, rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Jones has emerged as an authentic threat on the ground, having eclipsed the 100-yard mark in two of the past three games. Former starter Ty Montgomery, whose multiple rib fractures in a Sept. 28 win over Chicago opened the door for Jones to see playing time, remains in the coaches’ offensive plans as well, according to McCarthy.
Still, having an intact offensive line might be the biggest game-changer for Hundley. Not only could the group provide him with improved protection, but with Jones’ emergence in the backfield, the group should get more chances to do something every offensive lineman prefers to do: Run block.
“It’s awesome. And it makes the pass blocking easier,” Linsley said of run-blocking. “The ideal situation for a defensive lineman is to know what the hell’s going on. And if they know it’s a pass, (they can) pin their ears back (and pass rush). That’s what guys are drafted in the first round for — to get to the quarterback. But if there’s some uncertainty on what the play call is – (if they’re thinking), ‘These guys can run the ball now, too’ – that makes the whole thing easier.”
Added Bulaga: “I thought we ran the ball really well (against New Orleans). But at the same time, we need to be just as productive in the pass game as well. Up front, we need to protect better. It’s a group effort in the pass game. Everybody’s got a role in it. As a unit we need to step up and do our part.”
So far this season, Bakhtiari missed four games and part of another with a hamstring injury suffered in the opener against Seattle; Bulaga missed three games and part of two others with a training-camp ankle injury and an Oct. 14 concussion; and Taylor missed last week’s loss to the Saints with an ankle injury.
Among those who’ve filled in have been Justin McCray (at guard and both tackle spots), Kyle Murphy (at both tackle positions before a season-ending foot injury), Lucas Patrick (at guard) and Taylor, who kicked out to left tackle for two games with Bakhtiari out.
“Those guys have done an excellent job filling in. They’ve proven themselves,” Linsley said. “(But) with the starters back in there, we’re only going to get better. When we get this offensive line together, it’s only going to get better. As soon as we get a rhythm going in these games, especially with Aaron Jones running behind our full offensive line, I have the utmost confidence.”