Silverstein: Packers' season could hinge on health of two tackles
GREEN BAY – In the final two exhibition games before the regular season starts, think of the Green Bay Packers’ starting tackles as Kyle Murphy and Jason Spriggs.
Then take a deep breath.
Because what you are about to see — starting with Friday night’s game against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland — might not always be pretty. But those two will be all the Packers have this season between some pretty good pass rushers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers should something happen to left tackle David Bakhtiari and/or right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Odds are neither of those two starters makes it through the year without missing time. The Packers would be extraordinarily lucky — not to mention, a lot better team — if both made it through the season without injury.
It is a fact of life in the NFL that a half dozen or so teams have a left tackle as good as Bakhtiari, a handful have a tackle as good as Bulaga to go along with him, and almost no one has a third tackle with starter ability.
The Packers tried to be that team when they drafted Spriggs in the second round of the 2016 draft.
But as is often the case in the NFL, a second-round pick may not turn out to be as good as a fourth-round pick (Bakhtiari), and disappointment is usually the result.
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New general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted one offensive lineman this year — Cole Madison — but even though he played tackle in college, he was projected as a guard. The Packers never found out whether he could insert himself in the mix because he hasn’t reported to camp due to a personal issue.
Gutekunst’s other addition was veteran Byron Bell, who is entering his eighth season and has more than 70 starts under his belt. When Spriggs wasn’t giving Mike McCarthy what he wanted out of the backup right tackle position, the Packers coach inserted Bell. But lately Bell has been playing guard and could lock down the top backup spot there.
Where tackle is concerned, if you think Gutekunst is going to find someone on the trade market or after cuts who can keep Rodgers clean, forget it. Tackles are a prime commodity and most teams are lucky to have one good one, so if they get rid of a guy it’s because he’s too old or too injured or no good.
“I’ve always thought it’s really difficult, quite frankly, after you get out of the spring time to find the bigger guys,” Gutekunst said. “It’s much more difficult.
“I kind of feel you can find some legs, guys who can run, but finding big people that can play the game is always one of the most difficult challenges.”
It doesn’t mean Gutekunst won’t stop looking. Maybe there is a Bruce Wilkerson (think 1996) who can come in and be a capable backup, but it would be silly to count on that happening.
The Packers are simply all in on Spriggs and Murphy.
They still have hope that Spriggs becomes more than just a four-year, 53-man roster spot occupant and if you watched the second exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers you could see why.
Playing six series at left tackle and two at right tackle, Spriggs gave up a pressure and narrowly avoided giving up a sack but otherwise was solid when he had one-on-one assignments. His run blocking was decent, better than what he had shown in the past, possibly a result of the 20 pounds he added in the offseason.
What the Packers must see from Spriggs in the final two games is consistency. Playing 40 decent snaps but letting Rodgers get creamed on three others is not acceptable, especially at left tackle where the pass rusher is coming from the quarterback’s blind side.
The same goes for Murphy, who spent the first three weeks of training camp mostly on the left side only to be tossed in as the starting right tackle against the Steelers last week. Murphy didn’t play as well as Spriggs, giving up a sack and a couple of pressures, but he does have regular-season experience starting for Bakhtiari early last season.
His development came to a halt when he broke his foot a short time later and was lost for the season.
If Murphy, a sixth-round pick in ’16, winds up being the backup left tackle, the Packers are going to need the same thing from him that they will if Spriggs gets the job. He doesn’t have to be as good as Bakhtiari, but he can’t have lapses every game that put the quarterback in danger.
“We just need a guy who can have confidence in that position and when he (Bakhtiari) was out (last year), I thought the guys who stepped in played well,” Rodgers said. “But we just have to get back that mindset. When Murph was out there, I thought Murph was playing with a lot of confidence.
“We have to get back to those guys playing with the same kind of confidence they had in the games when they get those opportunities.”
What both Spriggs and Murphy have had to fight is pressure to be just as good as Bakhtiari and Bulaga. If they become a starter, McCarthy isn’t going to leave them on an island blocking one-on-one as much as he would Bakhtiari.
The times he does, however, the backups can’t fold. They don’t have to be perfect, but they must keep pass rushers from running past them at full speed on their way to delivering a big hit on Rodgers. It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty, they just must find a way to keep Rodgers clean.
It is exactly what earned guard Justin McCray playing time last year and a starting right guard job this year.
“It’s understandable,” Spriggs said of fans wanting him to be as good as Bakhtiari. “You’re used to seeing something, you’re used to seeing the job done in a certain way. But it’s not necessarily about copying that, it’s about getting the job done in the way you have to get the job done.
“I have to come up with what work’s best for me. Just focus on consistency and get the job done.”
The sacks a backup gives up in an exhibition game are magnified because any mistake he makes occurs during a much smaller body of work than if he were playing an entire game. Center Corey Linsley struggled with some blocks against the Steelers, for instance, but no one is panicking because he has years of good snaps to fall back on.
Spriggs and Murphy won’t have to worry about going against elite pass rusher Khalil Mack on Friday night because Mack is holding out. But the Raiders are expected to play their starters into the second quarter and so the two tackles won’t be facing second- and third-stringers like in the past two games.
It’s unlikely Rodgers will play and questionable whether the No. 1 offensive line will play more than a series, if at all. So, the two third-year tackles will play what amounts to as close a regular-season game as possible before the opener.
“We’re professional athletes,” Murphy said. “You’re one of the top 32 right tackles, or however you want to look at it, we have to be able to (play). There’s a certain standard that has to be met.”
As much confidence as Gutekunst, McCarthy and Rodgers have shown publicly in the two tackles, it’s hard to imagine they’re not holding their breath that at least one of the two makes big gains over the next two games. If neither does, the season could hang on the health of Bakhtiari and Bulaga.