Packers' offensive line doesn't miss a beat despite losing David Bakhtiari
CHICAGO - Four months ago, what the Green Bay Packers' offense did Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field was unthinkable.
When training camp opened in the middle of August, everyone knew the most irreplaceable piece to the Packers' title hopes. Aaron Rodgers is the most valuable player not only of this team, but after another dominant performance against his longtime nemesis in a 35-16 win, likely the NFL. With Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes sitting Week 17, Rodgers all but clinched his third career MVP.
“The MVP should be locked up,” receiver Davante Adams said. “There’s nothing else to really talk about (with the race).”
Rodgers’ resurgence this season was difficult to envision, given the Packers traded up in the first round to draft his potential successor this spring. If he was going to regain MVP form at 37 years old, the one player he had to have — even more than his record-breaking receiver — was the All-Pro left tackle.
There was simply no replacement on this Packers roster for David Bakhtiari. Or so almost everyone outside Lambeau Field thought. When Bakhtiari’s season ended Thursday with a suspected torn ACL, it was easy to think his absence would doom a team that sealed the NFC’s top overall seed Sunday. Yes, the road to Super Bowl LV is now paved through Lambeau Field, and the Packers will be rested for the journey with the conference's lone bye.
Four months ago, Bakhtiari was the one player not named Aaron Rodgers the Packers needed to have a deep postseason run, let alone win a championship.
So what the Packers' offense did Sunday breathed new life into those aspirations. The Packers faced a good Bears defense that entered ranking ninth in points (22.3 per game) and 11th in yards (346.9). The Bears needed a win or Arizona Cardinals loss to garner a playoff berth (they got the latter), so much like the Packers going for the top overall seed, Chicago had everything on the line.
The Bears also outplayed the Packers for most of the game. They had the better special teams unit, no surprise given the Packers’ shortcomings there this season. The Packers defense forced Chicago to go 6-for-15 on third down, but the Bears responded with 5-of-6 on fourth down, bleeding the clock. The Bears dominated time of possession throughout, limiting the Packers to just 44 plays.
“That was a strange game,” LaFleur said, “to only come out with 44 plays.”
But the Packers dropped 35 points on those 44 plays. They scored touchdowns on all four of their red-zone trips, five of their seven full drives. They converted 4-of-7 on third down, with just two punts. They allowed only one sack, which has been the norm for the Packers this season but especially impressive against a defensive front that features Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks.
They did all of that without their irreplaceable left tackle.
“If they were super disruptive,” Adams said, “it would mess with a lot of calls that we had. Which, I didn’t really see too much of that going on. It seemed like we were still able to get to all the plays we wanted to get to, and from a receiver’s perspective it looked like we held up and did our job up front all game. So shout out to the boys.”
The Packers have played musical chairs with their offensive line all season. So maybe they were prepared for this. When Bakhtiari missed three games earlier this season because of a rib injury, Billy Turner played admirably at left tackle and Rick Wagner lined up mostly at right tackle.
Still, it’s remarkable to consider Turner was the Packers’ starting right guard last season. And Wagner, though a veteran who has started 95 games at right tackle in his career, was not the preferred starter leaving camp. Matt LaFleur wanted his best five for the starting offensive line Week 1, regardless position. That meant Lane Taylor at right guard, Wagner on the bench.
Wagner has proven his value since. He’s the type of veteran tackle depth the Packers have lacked in recent seasons, something every championship team needs.
“Tackles are a quarterback’s best friend a lot,” Rodgers said, “and I’m just very thankful for those guys for being pro’s pros. Especially Rick, because his status has been kind of up in the air, a backup, starter, banged up, comes back. Just a pro’s pro. Very steady guy. Really happy he’s ours.”
Bakhtiari’s loss might be felt more in the run game than in pass blocking. True, the left tackle has garnered a reputation for being the NFL’s best pass blocker, but Bakhtiari’s gains as a run blocker especially in LaFleur’s outside zone system have been impressive the past two seasons.
Unlike their matchup at Lambeau Field in late November, the Packers were unable to do much on the ground Sunday. They rushed for 182 yards on 39 carries in that Week 12 matchup. Aaron Jones led the way with 90 yards on 17 carries. But Hicks missed that game because of injury, and his absence left a massive void in the middle of the field.
With Hicks on the field Sunday, the Packers managed just 79 rushing yards on 19 carries. They found it so difficult to get much traction on the ground, at times it appeared they abandoned the running game for Rodgers’ right arm. He delivered, completing 19 of 24 passes for 240 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 147.9 rating, thanks in part to plenty of time in the pocket because of the offensive line.
Still, this offense is at its best when its run game leads the way. The run game makes Rodgers even more dangerous, enticing defenses out of position on play-action passes. What this offense can do on the ground with Bakhtiari — and four of the NFL’s top five run defenses are NFC playoff teams — remains in question.
But, ultimately, the scoreboard is what matters most. What the Packers did to the Bears on Sunday, dropping five touchdowns on a good defense with everything to play for, might just be enough to continue this special season as deep as they envisioned before Bakhtiari’s injury.
“We have a lot of confidence,” LaFleur said, “in the guys we have in that locker room that we can still accomplish what we need to. It doesn’t really necessarily change how we game plan, or how we approach each and every game, because of the versatility and flexibility and depth that we have in the O line room.”