Packers' offensive line rolls with several punches in Week 1

Versatility of Jenkins, efforts off the bench by Wagner and Runyan kept the offense rolling

T Rick Wagner and G Jon Runyan

GREEN BAY – As the Packers figure out how to replace guard Lane Taylor in the starting lineup the rest of the season, the offensive line has a whale of a performance to build upon.

With adversity and moving parts galore, the guys up front did not allow quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sacked in 44 drop-backs and helped pave the way to a robust 4.9 yards per carry average on the ground in Sunday's 43-34 victory at Minnesota.

All that success came despite having to start 2019 PFWA All-Rookie guard Elgton Jenkins at right tackle for an injured Billy Turner, with Lucas Patrick filling in at Jenkins' usual spot, only to have Jenkins move back to left guard when Patrick hurt his shoulder as Rick Wagner entered at right tackle.

Then Taylor’s season-ending knee injury occurred, prompting rookie sixth-round draft pick Jon Runyan to jump into the fray at right guard.

Yet barely a beat was skipped, and while it helped that none of the players coming off the bench had to deal with crowd noise and execute with a silent snap count, the most important thing is they all showed they were ready to play and deal with whatever circumstances were tossed at them.

"I think it's big credit to (offensive line coaches) Adam Stenavich and Luke Butkus. They do a great job of teaching these guys. Not only that we've got great leadership in that room," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur, specifically referencing the unit's mainstays at left tackle, David Bakhtiari, and center, Corey Linsley, as well as Taylor.

"They're such a tight-knit group and they do a great job of pushing each other to be their best."

Good old-fashioned talent plays a role, too. Jenkins' all-rookie honors at left guard last season came after he finished his college career at Mississippi State as a two-year starter at center. He switched to right tackle and back to guard so seamlessly Sunday there isn't a position on the line LaFleur believes he can't play.

Linsley called him "a natural offensive lineman," and he could prove to be an even more invaluable piece as the Packers work on getting Turner and Patrick healthy again.

"He's a guy that just is unfazed in the face of adversity or in the heat of the battle," LaFleur said. "He never flinches, and that's such a credit to him and how he's prepared himself to be the player he's become."

Wagner came to Green Bay as a free agent with 87 NFL starts to his credit for Baltimore and Detroit. He missed some time with an elbow injury in training camp but looked no worse for wear Sunday, going up against new Vikings pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue on occasion.

Wagner's experience and others' versatility gives the Packers options moving forward. Wagner could hold down the right tackle spot for now, with Turner (when healthy) playing right guard as he did last year. Or Turner might take back right tackle with Patrick (when healthy) or the rookie Runyan taking over at right guard.

However it shakes out, Runyan's NFL debut was as encouraging as it was unexpected. Moving to the right side after playing almost exclusively left guard throughout training camp, on top of not having any preseason games nor taking any 11-on-11 snaps with the starting unit last month, created a significant challenge, but he answered the call.

Forgive the former All-Big Ten tackle from Michigan if he was a tad awestruck as well, stepping into the huddle with Rodgers in Week 1 as a rookie.

"It's insane," Runyan said. "I remember being in eighth grade and watching Aaron win the Super Bowl. I was sitting there on my couch. Now I got thrown in my first NFL game I ever dressed, I'm in charge of protecting him.

"It's kind of crazy how life works sometimes. That was my first snaps with the first-team offense, first snaps with Aaron, with all the guys."

Linsley's message upon his entering was to communicate – "If you don't know, ask. Just make sure you're on the same page as everybody else," the veteran center said – and Runyan held his own through the fourth quarter.

He then was treated to a home-cooked meal upon returning to Green Bay. His mom had been in town to help him get settled in a new place and watched the game on TV. She had some food waiting for him, as well as some hearty hugs.

Meanwhile his dad and namesake, the longtime Philadelphia Eagles standout lineman who's now an NFL executive, was tuned in from the league offices in New York, and junior expects an extensive film review session via phone in the coming days.

"I was in for only about 15 offensive snaps, but he's probably going to be on there for two hours talking," Runyan said.

The Packers don't have much more time than that to figure out what's next, but as the injuries get sorted out, a foundation for 2020 has been laid, as varied as it was.

The offensive line showed how much it can handle in a Week 1 that was more difficult than the unit made it look.

"I wouldn't say we're ever surprised if we perform well, but that's our goal," Linsley said. "We're proud of the way we played yesterday.

"Going against a defense that is coached well, has played well against us in the past, kind of gives us an extra boost of confidence, and hopefully we can use that to improve our game and improve the rest of the season."

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