Packers solidify offensive line by bringing back veteran tackle Jared Veldheer

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - More than likely, the Green Bay Packers decided to sign veteran tackle Jared Veldheer as insurance should Rick Wagner’s ailing knees keep him out of their divisional round playoff game Saturday against the Los Angeles Rams.

But the team’s signing of the 33-year-old Veldheer off the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad could offer other options if coach Matt LaFleur is thinking he needs help blocking unanimous All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Wagner has been battling injuries to both knees, the latest to his left knee when he got rolled up on from behind in the Week 17 game against the Chicago Bears. The 31-year-old Wagner gutted it out and played all 46 snaps, but it’s possible his status is in doubt against the Rams.

Even with a bye week, Wagner’s injury may not have responded to treatment and they may not feel as though he can function well enough to start. If that were the case, the Packers didn’t really have a backup option after losing starting left tackle David Bakhtiari to a torn ACL prior to the Tennessee game.

Their only other choice would be young Yosh Nijman, who is a developmental player and not ready to start a playoff game.

If Wagner is able to play, the Packers would still want someone ready in case his knee doesn’t hold up.

Veteran tackle Jared Veldheer is returning to the Packers.

A less-likely scenario with Veldheer, but one LaFleur could consider if Wagner is healthy enough to play, is to start Veldheer at left tackle and move Billy Turner back to right guard. That would give him his three best linemen – Elgton Jenkins, Corey Linsley and Turner – in the middle to deal with Donald.

Veldheer started at left tackle for the Colts in their playoff loss Saturday at Buffalo and played some left tackle for the Arizona Cardinals in 2017. His performance against the Bills was remarkably good given he had not played a down all year. He allowed two pressures and no sacks single-blocking mostly against Mario Addison and AJ Epenesa.

The 6-8, 322-pound Veldheer, who has 33-inch long arms and 10-inch hands, may be better suited for right tackle at his age, but his length and brute strength were evident against the Bills. Whether he can handle Rams speed rusher Leonard Floyd, who had two sacks Saturday against the Seahawks, is something LaFleur would have to consider.

Before being signed to the Colts’ practice squad and brought up just for the playoff game, Veldheer had not played a snap of football since starting for the Packers in their divisional playoff victory against Seattle a year ago.

Veldheer came out of retirement to play for the Packers in late November and filled in when right tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a concussion in a Week 17 game against Detroit and again against the Seahawks when Bulaga fell ill before the game.

He had last played in a game in 2018, spending most of the ’19 season on the retired list after deciding to hang it up one week after he had signed with New England. The Patriots waived him in November and the Packers picked him up.

After saying no to an offer from the Dallas Cowboys this past offseason, Veldheer sat at home until the Colts came calling last week. He played every snap in place of injured Anthony Castanzo, who was out with an ankle injury.

No. 1 worries

The Packers know as much as anybody about No. 1 seeds blowing it in the NFC divisional playoff round.

They have been involved in the last three games in which that has occurred. Considering there have been only five such upsets since 2000, the Packers own the market in being a part of them.

They are the last team to upset a No. 1 seed and the last team to be upset as a No. 1 seed in the second round of the postseason. They are also the last team to win three in a row on the road to win the NFC, knocking off a No. 1 seed in the process.

As the No. 1 seed in the 2020 season, the Packers were the only team in the conference to have a bye week and will have gone 13 days without a live snap before hosting the Rams at Lambeau Field.

The sixth-seeded Rams reached this round with an upset victory at Seattle and will be looking to take the same path the Packers took to the Super Bowl in 2010, winning three playoff games on the road.

“Great football team, obviously,” Rams coach Sean McVay said Sunday about the Packers. “I think they're playing really well in all three phases. It's why they're the (No.) 1 seed. I follow them very closely because of my relationship Matt (LaFleur).

“It's well-documented how well they played offensively. Aaron (Rodgers) is playing like Aaron’s played. It's unbelievable. Davante Adams, you look at the amount of skill players that they get involved while they play upfront. They're explosive. They can beat you in both phases.”

Las Vegas has installed the 13-3 Packers as early seven-point favorites against the 11-6 Rams, and much of that has to do with how well the Packers have been playing and question marks about the injury status of Rams quarterback Jared Goff (thumb) and NFL defensive player of the year candidate Aaron Donald (rib).

It also has to do with the rarity of No. 1 seeds losing in the NFC divisional round. Since 2000, the NFC’s No. 1 seed has been a one-and-done just five times.

The last time it happened, the Packers went into Dallas in 2016 as the No. 4 seed and upset the No. 1 Cowboys 34-31, securing the victory with a six-play, 42-yard drive that set up kicker Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal as the clock ran out.

The last time before that, the fourth-seeded New York Giants came into Lambeau Field in 2011 and upset the No. 1-seeded Packers 37-20, ruining a season in which they had gone 15-1.

The year prior, the Packers had marched into Atlanta as the No. 6 seed and dismantled the top-seeded Falcons 48-21 en route to a Super Bowl XLV championship. The Packers also beat third-seeded Philadelphia on the road in the wild-card round and second-seeded Chicago on the road in the NFC championship game.

Rodgers and Crosby are the only players left on the team who were involved in those three seasons. Only eight players on either the 53-man roster or injured reserve remain from the ’16 season.

Going on the road during the COVID-19 era is no walk in the park, but the Rams won’t be facing a screaming mass of fans on game day and the weather forecast looks reasonable even for a West Coast team.

The Packers are allowing 6,000 fans into Lambeau Field, which is a lot more than the couple hundred they have been permitting, but it’s not enough to cause the Rams communication problems.

As for the forecast, as of Monday the high temperature Saturday was forecast to be 32 degrees with partly cloudy skies and normal winds. Unless a snowstorm or cold front moves in, it should be perfectly bearable for the Rams.

“It’s definitely something that we’ve got to (consider), while also kind of realizing that we are out here and we’ve got to be able to handle it, especially with just the limited opportunities we’ve had to play in those settings,” McVay said. “They’ve got to play in it too and we look forward to it and it’ll be a great setting for us on Saturday night."

Quarterback quandary

McVay is not showing his hand as to which quarterback he will start against the Packers, at least until the Rams start practicing Tuesday.

McVay wants to see how John Wolford (stinger) and Goff (broken thumb) handle practice reps this week before making his decision.

Wolford started against Seattle but took a blow to the head and was unable to continue. In came Goff, who two weeks prior had pins placed in his broken thumb and wasn’t expected to play against the Seahawks.

Goff wasn’t great – he completed 9 of 19 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown – but the Rams' offense did enough to win.

“I'm going to take it a day at a time,” McVay said. “It affected him (Saturday). I mean, if you watch the game, it did. It might not have been painful, but it was something that – he did a great job battling and being ready to go. There were some things that he typically is able to execute that it seemed like they were a factor.”

McVay said he expected Donald, who exited in the third quarter with a rib injury, to play Saturday, although he may not practice much. McVay said receiver Cooper Kupp was suffering from knee bursitis and has hoping the inflammation in his knee would go down enough that he could play.

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