How Jared Veldheer went from retirement to playing every down in Packers' playoff win

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Jared Veldheer was as surprised as you.

The Green Bay Packers backup tackle was relaxing Sunday morning, watching pregame coverage of the early playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, when the news broke. That flu bug inside the Packers locker room had reached right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Veldheer, who'd had a similar virus, figured he might have a busier night than expected.

So he hopped in his car and drove to Lambeau Field.

“That thing is awful,” Veldheer said. “I know what it’s like on that thing. Like, he can’t function. So I got it through my head pretty quick that I had to be ready for this ballgame.”

After spending the entire week on scout team, with Bulaga taking the reps with the Packers' starting offensive line, Veldheer went from playing no snaps to playing all of them in a split second. He was on the field for every play in the Packers' 28-23 win against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC divisional playoff round Sunday, a victory that propelled them to the NFC championship game next Sunday.

Nov 18, 2018; Carson, CA, USA; Denver Broncos offensive tackle Jared Veldheer (66) looks on against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Bulaga was active, but his availability was only in case of emergency – or a miraculous recovery. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, who had a similar illness, saw Bulaga on Sunday morning. Right away, Bakhtiari said, he knew his longtime teammate’s chances of playing that night were slim.

“I was like, ‘Man it’s going to be tough,’” Bakhtiari said. “I was (worried) he had what I had, because what I had lasted a week. It was scary.”

Bakhtiari said there are four strands of influenza tracing through the Packers' locker room. It started one week earlier, when the Packers were on bye, and hasn’t stopped. “I just had the sweats, body ache, fever, chills,” Bakhtiari said. “It was nasty.” Bakhtiari wouldn’t divulge Bulaga’s illness, but the 10th-year veteran is one of the toughest players inside the Packers' locker room. If he can’t play in a postseason game, you know he’s sick.

Bulaga attempted to give it a go. He went through pregame warmups, but the decision to sit him was made shortly after. Veldheer, whom the Packers acquired in early December, said he learned he would start for Bulaga about 20 minutes before kickoff. He’d played only 35 snaps since the Packers acquired him, all of them coming in their finale at the Detroit Lions. A playoff game, against the Seahawks' defense, was an entirely different setting.

Veldheer didn’t flinch.

“Getting all antsy and everything,” Veldheer said, “that just doesn’t help.”

The Packers overhauled their roster – especially on defense – in free agency this spring, but general manager Brian Gutekunst’s in-season acquisitions have been subtly key to this run. They’re the kind of moves that have thrust Gutekunst into the conversation for NFL executive of the year

Veldheer is a perfect example.

A 10th-year veteran like Bulaga, Veldheer retired after last season. Before Thanksgiving, he was driving from his home in Cedar Rapids, Mich., to his wife’s family in Northwest Indiana when his phone rang. The Packers had claimed him off the reserved/retired list. Veldheer stayed in Indiana long enough to eat a Thanksgiving meal, then continued north to Green Bay.

That the Packers were able to add a backup tackle who’d started 120 career games seemed fortuitous. The move paid off Sunday. Veldheer had been here before, literally. He was with the Arizona Cardinals’ in 2015, playing for a team that knocked out the Packers in the NFC divisional playoff round.

“He’s an established veteran,” Bakhtiari said, “who’s played a lot of football in this league. Everyone is looking at him like a backup, but he was a starter in this league. He’s played a decade. He’s seen a lot of ball, he’s been in these tough situations. For him, it’s just kind of getting back on the saddle and going.”

Veldheer, evaluating his night, said there were mostly little mistakes to polish, but he was mostly clean. His lone, noticeable poor play came on the Packers’ first red-zone snap of the night. And, all things considered, it was understandable. Veldheer was matched against Jadeveon Clowney, a freak athlete with an explosive first step.

“That dude,” Veldheer said, “is a tough dude when you’re going as hard as you can to the right, and he decides to knife in on you.”

Clowney beat Veldheer inside, barely drawing contact before tackling running back Aaron Jones for a 4-yard loss.

Otherwise, Veldheer was barely noticeable. A remarkable feat for an offensive tackle who had barely played all year, until needing to replace one of the Packers’ top players.

“I was very proud of him,” Bakhtiari said. “I told him it’s one thing to fill in and let us run our offense, but to excel in our offense and let us run it at a high level is another thing. And I just told him I appreciate it.”

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