GREEN BAY – The unit embodies simply doing what it takes.
Against the Vikings in Week 2, the Packers’ offensive line was executing the outside-zone runs effectively. At Dallas, it was the inside-zone plays. Pretty much every week, the group has been protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers like crazy.
Rookie Elgton Jenkins has stepped in for Lane Taylor at left guard. Lucas Patrick was thrown in to substitute for Corey Linsley against the Cowboys when the veteran center exited with a concussion. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga keeps battling through nicks and bruises to fight off top-flight edge rushers.
Whatever the task, the Packers’ offensive line has been up to it over the season’s first five games. If there’s been one negative, it’s a few too many penalties. But paving the way for Aaron Jones’ 107 yards and four rushing touchdowns against the Cowboys on Sunday might have been the group’s best performance yet, which bodes well moving forward.
“I really liked how we were coming off the ball, really liked our mentality going into the game,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said Monday. “We knew in order to combat their good pass rush we had to be able to run the ball and be a two-dimensional offense.
“We really focused on that this week. Our receivers did an awesome job blocking on the perimeter, our backs hit it, and it was just a good total team rushing effort.”
For all the talk about the outside zone being the staple of Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s ground attack, it was the inside zone that did all the damage in Dallas.
As the season goes along, the Packers want to be proficient at both, but the sideline-to-sideline speed of the Cowboys’ linebackers combined with a better comfort level at the moment with inside running plays helped Jones gash the Dallas run defense for gains of 10-plus yards in six of his 19 attempts.
“I think that’s what coaching is all about,” LaFleur said. “You find out what your guys do well and where a team is vulnerable that you’re playing against and you attack that. That’s part of coaching, part of game-planning. Ultimately you have to know your players, you have to know what they do well and try to put them into position to have success.”
Bulaga is doing everything well in 2019. His reps and health were managed throughout the spring and summer to get him in peak form for Week 1, and he’s now dealing with a shoulder injury but playing through it.
Stenavich complimented Bulaga on both his consistency and his film study of opponents, showing no setbacks in preparation when his snaps have to be limited in practice. So far through five weeks he’s faced Chicago’s Khalil Mack, Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter, Denver’s Von Miller, Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham and Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence and hasn’t given up a sack.
Rodgers has been sacked only 10 times total in five games (and one of those he took intentionally in Dallas), putting him on pace for his fewest over a full season since 2014. A big part of that low total has been Bulaga’s work.
“I was thinking about that the other day – you really don’t get any weeks off in this league for sure, especially with the schedule we’ve had,” Stenavich said. “But Bryan’s been playing his butt off. True pro, great leader in our room, and obviously his play on the field is reflected in all that.
“He knows what he needs to prepare, he’ll get himself right to play, and we can trust he knows what he needs.”
The Packers needed Patrick to take on some tough duty when Linsley went out, ending the veteran center’s streak of more than 2,700 consecutive snaps that dated back to December of 2016.
A guard through his first two seasons in Green Bay, Patrick has worked as a backup center extensively in practice but hadn’t played there in a regular-season game until Sunday. A couple of wayward shotgun snaps when he was moving laterally for a reach block were fortunately snagged by Jones as he was cutting in front of Rodgers. Stenavich’s description was Patrick “torqued the ball a little bit” on those two occasions, so the timing and technique will need to be smoothed out.
But overall, Patrick’s performance was solid and there were no limitations to what the offense was running with him in at center. The players don’t return to the practice field until Thursday this week, one day later than normal due to next week’s Monday night game, so the team will know more then about Linsley’s potential status against Detroit and whether Patrick will be in the lineup again.
“I was proud of the way he went in and competed,” Stenavich said of Patrick. “He plays with great effort. He kept our offense rolling when Corey went down. That’s always the biggest thing when you bring a center in is his communication, his targeting, he has to get everyone on point. I was fired up with how he did that.”
Rodgers was proud of him as well. After the game Sunday, the quarterback recounted a story about a conversation over lunch midway through training camp when Patrick was "struggling a little bit mentally," but he's turned things around considerably over the last several weeks.
"Since the end of training camp he's really gained a lot of confidence in the scheme," Rodgers said, "where he can step in on a tough environment with a really good front and be effective."