David Bakhtiari's absence shows what the Packers already know: his availability is unpredictable

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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LANDOVER, Maryland – It wasn’t until he arrived Sunday morning at FedEx Field that Green Bay Packers rookie Zach Tom knew he’d make his first career start.

That doesn’t mean he went to bed Saturday night in the nation’s capital without a clue he’d be playing left tackle against the Washington Commanders.

By the time offensive line coach Luke Butkus told Tom he was playing just a couple of hours before kickoff, the rookie already was prepared. Tom said he takes first-team reps at left tackle each week, necessary because of David Bakhtiari’s continually uncertain status because of his left knee. This week, Tom was especially aware he might play.

“Pretty much any week, with Dave,” Tom said, “you just know that the knee, anything can happen. So this was really no different than any other week, except for the fact that obviously when I got to the stadium, they told me I was starting.

“That was the only real difference from this week to any other week.”

Behind the scenes, the Packers at least crafted contingencies for Bakhtiari’s unpredictable availability. They hesitated for weeks to move Yosh Nijman to right tackle, even while their overwhelmed offensive line play demanded they experiment with the idea, believing Nijman might need to be used as a crutch early in Bakhtiari’s return.

That they’ve ensured Nijman and Bakhtiari aren’t the only left tackles taking first-team reps throughout the week is another step to guard against Bakhtiari’s unpredictability.

As bad as the Packers offense looked in a 23-21 loss to the Washington Commanders, it could have been much worse if they hadn’t. After working all week to rewire their offensive line, changing four of the five starting positions, Bakhtiari was inactive against the Commanders. His absence came just when offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said the team was starting to exhale, believing Bakhtiari’s struggles to stay on the field were behind him.

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones scores a touchdown against the Washington Commanders.

Then the Packers downgraded Bakhtiari to questionable Saturday because of his knee. By then, Tom already knew there was a good chance he’d play.

“You can just see it,” Tom said, “the way he looks in practice sometimes, you’ve just always got to be ready. Obviously, I didn’t know I was going to start, but you’ve just always got to be ready to play.”

Once Bakhtiari was inactive, the Packers could have scratched their changes in favor of more familiarity. Instead, they pushed ahead, keeping everyone else where they practiced during the week. Elgton Jenkins slid back to left guard for the first time this season, returning to the position he was a Pro Bowler in 2020. Jon Runyan moved from left guard to right guard, a move he preferred not to make because of his familiarity on the left side. Nijman finally started at right tackle.

It’s hard to tell how much difference the changes made. The Commanders rarely blitzed Sunday, dropping more defenders in coverage. The offensive line still held up well enough to prevent Aaron Rodgers from being sacked. The quarterback took just one hit all day.

That came after Rodgers was sacked four times and hit nine times a week earlier against the New York Jets, the most hits he’s taken in a game since Week 5 of 2020.

“I’d say it was (better),” Jenkins said. “You look at the things we did last week and this week. We still took the L.”

Jenkins said the coaching staff presented the remade offensive line during a meeting early last week. At that point, following what LaFleur called the worst offensive line performance in his tenure as head coach, it was clear changes needed to be made.

Something that might not change is Bakhtiari’s inconsistent availability. The two-time All-Pro played almost every snap in two of the team’s previous three games entering Sunday, only sharing a part-time role with Nijman against the New York Giants to safeguard against the unusually long travel to London.

In that time, the team eased practice restrictions for Bakhtiari. After saying his left tackle wouldn’t practice three straight days during this season even after he returned as a full-time player, LaFleur relented recently. Bakhtiari practiced three days each of the past two weeks. His last off day was Oct. 7.

LaFleur was not asked whether he believes Bakhtiari was pushed too hard during a brief news conference following Sunday’s loss.

“It’s disappointing,” Rodgers said. “We all found out about it about the same time you guys did. That was the change that they went with. Two guys who have played a lot together on the left side, and two guys who had played together a lot on the right side, although they played together on the left side mostly. Then when Dave couldn’t go, we adjusted to it and kind of changed a lot of things around to get Zach some help.

“But we’re a better football team when 69 is out there.”

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