Packers rookie Zach Tom faces difficult task vs. Rams but at least he got advance notice

Kassidy Hill
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY − This week is almost relaxing for Zach Tom.

The Green Bay Packers rookie offensive lineman will start Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams in a must-win game as the Packers look to sneak into the playoffs. Furthermore, if Aaron Donald and his injured ankle are cleared to go, Tom could find himself taking on the generational talent. 

But given Tom’s short career thus far, this week is laid back. For once, he knows ahead of time he’ll be starting. 

“Being able to know early in the week so I can watch film and all that, it helps me out so I can focus on one position,” Tom said. 

Up to this point, the Packers have asked Tom to pull off a feat even veteran linemen would have trouble doing. He’s played all along the line, plugging in wherever needed due to injuries to either left tackle David Bakhtiari or left guard Elgton Jenkins. Due to the fluid nature of Bakhtiari’s knee injury week to week, there are times Tom wouldn’t know until 90 minutes before kickoff if he’d be playing. 

“He's had multiple games this year where 90 minutes before the game, 'Hey buddy, you're in,'" quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "It's crazy. I've never been a part of something like that during my career.

“I give him a lot of credit because he's played both guard and tackle for us and stepped in and done a really nice job.”

Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Zach Tom blocks Chicago Bears defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad.

His performance protecting Rodgers blindside so well is why coach Matt LaFleur said Tom looks “certainly not like a rookie.” 

“You talk about not flinching in any moment," LaFleur said, "he's done that. He's stepped right in and (I) feel like for the most part, he's played at a pretty high level. I'm excited about Zach and the flexibility that, again, another guy that can come in and play multiple positions. You can't have enough guys like that.” 

This week, Tom won’t have to wait until the last minute. He’s had two weeks to prepare.

Bakhtiari, who has not practiced this week, underwent an appendectomy Dec. 2 and Tom was tapped against the Chicago Bears. He then headed into the bye week and the practice for Week 15 knowing he’d be the guy against the Rams. 

“When he was in the role where he was kind of backing up at every position,” offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said Friday, "he was kind of like, ‘OK, what positions am I playing today. Am I playing guard, am I gonna play tackle like, am I playing left side, right side,' whatever that is.

“So I think he's a little bit more, I don't want to say relaxed, but just a little bit more confident, just focusing on one spot, as opposed to literally being a backup at every position where you might have a little bit more anxiety."

Luckily for the rookie, he has a Pro-Bowl teacher. 

“Dave (Bakhtiari) is in my ear a lot 'cause we play the same position, so he’s been helping me out,” Tom said. "He was helping me out Bears week and he’s been helping me out a little this week. And I know if he’s not playing, he’ll be there on the sideline helping me out.” 

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Tom isn’t a prototypical left tackle at 305 pounds. But he has earned trust from his team and opportunities because of a reliance on what makes him special, while shying away from what he said are not his strengths. 

“When I came in during camp I had a lot of things to work on,” Tom said. “And I think ... I think if I went back right now and looked at what I looked like during camp, it would be a completely different person. Obviously, nobody's perfect. And I know I'm not either. So I think playing to my strengths like my athleticism, I think that's been a really, really good help.

“I think knowing where you're weak at and trying to avoid getting into situations where that weakness can get exposed is important as a football player and I think as the seasons going on I’ve done a pretty good job of that.”

It’s an attitude that has endeared Tom to Stenavich. 

“He keeps his hips down, he can move with defenders,” Stenavich said. "He keeps his hips in front of defenders. His ability to do that, and you know, he's 305 pounds or wherever he is, he plays with all 305 pounds.  

“He doesn’t play with bad fundamentals, which could kind of get him out of position. So I think just his ability to play with good fundamentals helps him succeed … As we know, he's not the big guy. So just how he plays and helps himself play with better leverage and good hands. When you watch him in the run game, he's come a long way and he's actually a pretty productive guy in the run game. For a kid his size, he comes off the rock and hits people, so it's pretty, pretty cool to watch him just get better. ”

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