Packers deploy radical left tackle rotation to keep David Bakhtiari fresh in his 2022 debut vs. the Buccaneers
TAMPA – Their top receiver puked on the sideline after scoring a touchdown. Their starting center left in the fourth quarter with cramps. By the end, their defense was gassed.
The Green Bay Packers knew exactly what awaited them on their trip to play Tampa Bay, the sweltering heat, the mind-melting humidity. This was not the environment for a player who practically hadn’t taken snaps in two years.
So coach Matt LaFleur reached back to his early NFL coaching career, devising a plan to keep left tackle David Bakhtiari fresh. When LaFleur was an offensive assistant with the Houston Texans in 2008 and 2009, his first two seasons coaching in the league, coach Gary Kubiak would sometimes rotate his left tackles. Mike Brisiel might get one drive, Kasey Studdard the next.
It’s rare for starting offensive linemen to rotate, but LaFleur used that tactic Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bakhtiari started the game, playing for only the second time since tearing his ACL on the final day of 2020. Yosh Nijman, who has blossomed in Bakhtiari’s absence, played the second possession. The two continued rotating one possession after the next throughout the game, splitting the drives in half.
“Just went back to that experience,” LaFleur said, “and I know it doesn’t happen much in this league, but just to try to keep him available for the whole game. And we didn’t want to go zero to 60 with him in regards to here’s a guy who hasn’t really played a lot – really, outside of that Detroit game, hasn’t played in almost two years. Do you load him up with 60 plays in a game? And we didn’t think that was the right thing to do.”
Packers take different approach from last season's Lions game with David Bakhtiari
The Packers took the opposite approach when Bakhtiari started his only game last season at Detroit. Bakhtiari was on the field for the first four drives, but he left early in the fourth possession and didn’t return. He was shut down two weeks later when the Packers lost their playoff opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
Bakhtiari played just 27 snaps against the Lions. He hadn’t played since, needing a third knee surgery this offseason.
The Packers had decided Bakhtiari was unlikely to play in the season’s first two games, targeting their Week 3 trip to Tampa as the earliest date for his potential debut. Bakhtiari’s conditioning would have been severely tested if he played the full game, especially after the Packers opened with a 12-play touchdown drive.
That doesn’t mean he – or Nijman – were thrilled with the part-time plan.
“That was a first time for me,” Bakhtiari said. “I think it was a lot of talk, but at the end of the day we trusted the head coach and me and Yosh just bought in. It was something that – full disclosure – we weren’t the biggest fans of. But, hey, give credit where credit is due. Coach stuck to his guns, he called it and we looked at each other and we said, ‘Hey, we are going to make the most of this.’ And I think it was positive on both of us.”
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Bakhtiari played 34 snaps on six drives vs. Buccaneers
Bakhtiari ended Sunday’s game playing 34 snaps in six drives. It was possible the Packers would have pulled him late in the game if his conditioning slipped, but they never did.
It’s uncertain how long the Packers will deploy their left tackle rotation. They host the New England Patriots next week in Green Bay, where the heat and humidity will be nothing like what they experienced in Tampa.
“We’ll see how he responds to the load that was put on him today,” LaFleur said, “and we’ll make a decision with what we feel is in the best interest for us as a football team going forward.”
What's next for Yosh Nijman and the offensive line?
If Bakhtiari plays all the snaps next week, the Packers will need to determine what’s best for Nijman. Bakhtiari complimented the young tackle on how he’s developed over the past year, but Nijman has exclusively played on the left side. The Packers decided to bench Nijman in the playoffs last season, sliding right tackle Billy Turner to the left.
Nijman’s athleticism is a strength in pass blocking, which benefits him on the left side. He isn’t a rugged run blocker, something teams typically want in a right tackle. The question will be whether Nijman is a better right tackle than Royce Newman is a right guard. Newman, a second-year lineman, started at right guard Sunday with Elgton Jenkins at right tackle.
The Packers could slide Jenkins down to guard if they want Nijman to be their right tackle when Bakhtiari is ready to play full-time snaps. Or they can keep Nijman on the sideline, where he would become one of the NFL’s best backup left tackles.
“I tip my hat to Yosh,” Bakhtiari said. “Consummate pro. Watching his growth, so much appreciated him stepping in, obviously this is a tumultuous time for me. Seeing him grow and flourish, I have been very, very pleased with (him). I just couldn’t be happier to have someone to work back in with at left tackle.”
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