GREEN BAY – At some point in the next couple of weeks, the Green Bay Packers are going to be tempted to replace Justin McCray at right tackle with Jason Spriggs, their second-round pick in 2016 who is expected to come off injured reserve this week.
Spriggs struggled in training camp, but he’s a phenomenal athlete who devoted his six weeks off from football because of a hamstring injury to bulking up in the weight room and building back his confidence.
The 6-6, 306-pound Spriggs was drafted to one day replace Bryan Bulaga, whose career took a bad turn this season with a second torn ACL. If your priority was to protect Aaron Rodgers, you’d look for a guy with Spriggs’ length and athletic ability.
But as the Packers head into Week 11 hoping to keep their season alive, they’d be foolish to consider anybody but the large-bellied, thick-legged, guard-mannered McCray at right tackle.
Luckily for the Packers, McCray had to play in space during his year in the Arena League and so he learned how to deal with speed rushers in a pass-first offense. He made the Packers as a backup guard/center but has wound up playing more than 200 snaps at tackle because of injuries on the offensive line.
What makes McCray so appealing during this peculiar season is the force and attitude with which he plays, particularly in the run game. The Packers don't favor run-blocking over pass-blocking ability — for good reason given their quarterback — but with backup Brett Hundley under center they need alternative ways to win games.
They need to be able to run the ball, say, 35 times for 144 yards and a touchdown, maybe in the rain and on the road and against the eighth-ranked defense in the NFL.
Something like that.
Hundley’s two carries for 16 yards made it a nice round 160 yards rushing for the Packers in their 23-16 victory Sunday over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, marking the third time in five weeks they’ve gained 160 or more yards rushing. Last year, they reached 160 yards once in 19 games.
The Packers have averaged 4.0 yards per carry in five of nine games and rank fifth in the NFL with a 4.5-per-carry average for the season.
To say this sudden boost in rushing numbers is due to McCray would be to ignore all the other factors that have accounted for rushing success, including the addition of rookie running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.
But it’s also hard to deny that when McCray has started, the Packers have had uncanny success running the ball. In the five games he has played from start to finish, the Packers have rushed 115 times for 651 yards, a per-carry average of 5.66 yards.
Against the Bears, McCray had the unenviable task of having to block their best defensive player, end Akiem Hicks, in many running situations and speed rusher Leonard Floyd on passing plays.
The 6-3, 317-pound McCray did surprisingly well against Floyd, but the fun part of the day was watching him mud wrestle with the powerful Hicks.
On one sequence of plays, McCray took Hicks out of a run play with a cut play. Hicks, piping hot over being cut, knocked McCray on his butt on the next play. And on the next, the two locked onto each other with enough force to heat up both sidelines before Hicks finally sprung free at the end of the play.
McCray’s play isn’t always pretty, but it comes with an attitude.
“When you look at Justin McCray, his play style and his strengths as far as his footwork and his athletic ability and power, it definitely plays to your advantage in the run game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “But you can see that he had some things where (there were) some tough situations in adjustments we got into that weren’t as clean.
“But he’s a tough guy. What he’s done this year and played the multiple positions, I can’t say enough about it. I just love the way he plays. He had a huge matchup in that game and he delivered.”
If you had a choice between McCray and Bulaga at right tackle, you’d take Bulaga every time because his pass blocking is terrific and his run blocking is adequate. But at a time when the Packers are keeping a tight leash on Hundley, the addition of a powerful guard to the front five isn’t such a bad thing.
The Packers need to run better than they ever have so that Hundley doesn’t have to carry the offense. McCray helps swing the emphasis over to the run game because he will take on players such as Hicks and make them work for whatever they get.
“He’s a good run blocker,” guard Lane Taylor said. “He’s more physical than your average tackle, just from his body type and his demeanor, too. He’s a big body. He has that aggression of a guard.
“I think it’s an advantage run-game wise.”
Taylor is the unit’s best run blocker and though right guard Jahri Evans is at the tail end of his career and not the player he once was, he made Pro Bowls because he was a destructive run blocker and still has enough left that he gets used on pulling plays.
Throw in McCray and all of a sudden you have three powerful guards capable of mauling with anyone. The group still is working through some chemistry issues, but McCray has helped replace some of the to-the-whistle nastiness T.J. Lang provided.
Still left on the Packers’ schedule are the second- (Carolina), third- (Minnesota), fourth- (Cleveland), 10th- (Detroit) and 11th- (Pittsburgh) ranked run defenses in the NFL, so consistently producing rushing yards isn’t going to be easy.
Assuming the line is finally stable after so many injuries, the coaches can at least count on its side bringing some weight with its pads on every snap.
"I think our guys have been doing an outstanding job just in the finish of the play,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “That stands out. We talk about our play style, we talk about guys being physical, guys finishing their blocks, that stood out on the tape.”
It’s what the Packers have to come to expect from McCray every play.