GREEN BAY — David Bakhtiari’s eyes lit up at the thought. The pitch in his voice jumped almost an octave. A smile creased his lips.
For as long as he can remember, the Green Bay Packers’ left tackle has spent most of his game days backpedaling, fending off pass rushers. He understood why, of course, since he was blocking for a two-time NFL MVP who makes the offense go by throwing the football. And Bakhtiari still wishes that it was that way.
But with quarterback Aaron Rodgers out — perhaps for the rest of the season — with a fractured right collarbone, there’s no reason for the Packers to be a throw-it-first operation. Maybe at some point this season, Rodgers will be cleared to play, come off injured reserve and go back to throwing those pinpoint how’d-he-do-that darts everywhere.
In the interim, however, with understudy Brett Hundley starting in Rodgers’ place, Bakhtiari figures the Packers’ finally healthy offensive line may finally get to do something the five guys don’t do nearly often enough: Run block.
With the starting five linemen expected to be ready for Monday night’s back-from-the-bye showdown with NFC North rival Detroit at Lambeau Field — and rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Jones having emerged as a legitimate lead back — Bakhtiari believes he and his linemates can get the offense going by getting after the Lions’ defensive front.
“I think we have a lot of confidence in what we bring to the table. It’s a matter of one, being healthy enough to do it, and two, going out there and showing it,” Bakhtiari said as the Packers returned to work earlier this week. “The nice thing (is), we’re going to have some fun.
“Not having ‘12’ is terrible. But, I mean, everybody knows that you’re not going to be throwing as much. So it’s kind of a chance for us to pin our ears back and attack. At the end of the day, you have ‘12’ out there, you’re going to want to put the ball in the hands of the best player in the league as much as you can. Here, (the thought is), ‘Take a little bit off of Brett.’ That’d be nice.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy will surely try to be balanced in his play-calling approach against the Lions, and Hundley will still have to make some plays throwing the football. He hasn’t made many since Rodgers’ injury on the second series of an Oct. 15 loss at Minnesota, and Hundley enters the game having completed only 31 of 59 passes (52.5 percent) for 244 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions (40.5 rating).
McCarthy called a cautious game in the Oct. 22 loss to New Orleans, and a couple of failed third-and-short situations kept the Packers’ number of offensive snaps lower than he would have preferred (50 plays). Even so, McCarthy saw plenty from Jones — 17 carries for 131 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown on the opening drive — that should make the run game a greater part of the plan.
McCarthy acknowledged that having the line together — left guard Lane Taylor (ankle) missed the Saints game, giving the Packers their seventh starting offensive line variation in as many games — will factor into his game plan, although he was reluctant to assume all five will be good to go without letting the week of practice play out.
“I’m hopeful, but that’s what the week of practice is for. You have a plan, you install it, you work the plan. That never changes. From that, you decide how you’re going to call the game,” McCarthy said. “I’ve never decided how I was going to call a football game on a Tuesday, particularly going into a Monday night football game.
“(But), yes, it’ll be great to have those five guys. We’ve talked about this time and time again that the best offensive lines are the ones that line up and practice and play together week in and week out.”
Jones has posted a pair of 100-yard performances — after being a healthy inactive in Week 1.
“Aaron Jones has done nothing but good things since he’s been here. You could see the run ability early, especially in training camp,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s on a normal path as far as getting acclimated and doing the little things. I think he’s off to a good start. His natural run instincts obviously stand out but he’s still working on the other aspects of our offense. I think he’s done a heck of a job.”
Jones has also taken advantage of some gaping holes created by the makeshift line, as well as much-maligned tight end Martellus Bennett, who has not been as productive in the passing game as the Packers had hoped but has been very good as a run-blocker at the end of the line of scrimmage.
For the linemen, the idea of a run-first approach where they get to be the aggressors is why Bakhtiari was seeing a small silver lining to the dark cloud Rodgers’ injury created over the team and its playoff chances.
“It’s awesome. And, it makes the pass-blocking easier,” center Corey Linsley explained. “Because the ideal situation for a defensive lineman is to know what the (heck) is going on. If they know it’s a pass, (they can) pin their ears back. 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 say) ‘These guys can run the ball now, too’ — then that makes the whole thing easier.
“This is just my personal belief, but I think (Hundley) has all the intangibles as well as the physical attributes, the skill, to complete whatever we need to complete, whatever we ask him to do. I think that as we move along and as we grow and as we get better, Brett’s going to take this challenge and rise to it.”
And a healthy run game and healthy offensive line can help him do so.
“Being healthy is key,” Bakhtiari said. “The bye week was definitely nice — especially with how banged up we were. Us offensive linemen, we were pretty much limping into this bye week. I think that’s big, too.
“Our goal with a quarterback like that, with having Brett, is if we can give him some comfort in the pocket, get the running game going, it’d be very big for him.”