Analysis: David Bakhtiari paving way for Packers' ground game

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
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Green Bay Packers offensive tackle David Bakhtiari (69) talks blocking techniques with offensive guard Justin McCray (64) during practice inside the Don Hutson Center Wednesday, November 15, 2017 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

The Green Bay Packers have a player who’s performing at a Pro Bowl level, though he probably won’t end up on the NFC’s Pro Bowl team: David Bakhtiari.

The left tackle missed four games early in the season because of a bad hamstring injury, but since his return the Packers’ offensive line has solidified, and he’s a big reason the Packers have handled the season-ending loss of right tackle Bryan Bulaga as well as they have.

Where Bakhtiari has surprised this season is as a run blocker. He made the Pro Bowl last year on the strength of his pass protection, because that’s what left tackles are known for. But as the Packers have transformed to a run-oriented offense with Brett Hundley at quarterback, Bakhtiari has proven to be a tough mudder in the run game.

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In the Packers’ 26-20 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Sunday, Bakhtiari had another strong game, as did the Packers’ offensive line as a whole in helping halfback Jamaal Williams average 5.4 yards a carry and protecting Hundley as well as they have since he replaced injured Aaron Rodgers six games ago.

While Bakhtiari isn’t what you’d call a road grader in the run game, he has blocked well as the Packers’ offense has morphed into a run-oriented scheme without Rodgers. More often than not Sunday, Bakhtiari won his battle in the run game, and a run in the first quarter was illustrative of his day.

It was a first down on the Packers’ first drive with about 6½ minutes left in the quarter. On an inside zone run, Bakhtiari blocked down on defensive end Will Clarke, pushed him back about a yard and into the middle of the field. Though Williams’ path inside was blocked, he had nothing but green grass to his left and bounced outside Bakhtiari’s block for a nine-yard gain. That’s the perfect first-down run.

Bakhtiari had other good run blocks sprinkled throughout the game. There was his kickout block on defensive end Ryan Russell on a first down early in the fourth quarter that helped spring Williams for an eight-yard gain. And on a first down early in the Packers’ game-tying drive in the final six minutes, he led the way on an eight-yard run by Williams directly behind left tackle.

Having Bakhtiari playing at this high a level is especially important for the Packers’ stretch run, because if they’re going to run the table and possibly make it into the playoffs, they’re going to have to do it with backup Jason Spriggs at right tackle, not Bulaga.

Playing without a starting tackle in the NFL can be tough because of the quality pass rushers defenses put on the field almost weekly, but having a stopper on the left side can make up for a lot. As they showed again Sunday, the Packers don’t have to help Bakhtiari in pass protection, ever, no matter who he’s facing. Just leave him on an island and he only rarely will get beat.

That allows coach Mike McCarthy to line up a tight end or back where help is needed. Spriggs has played noticeably better the last two games after serious struggles as a pass blocker in the preseason and then in his return from injured reserve a couple weeks ago. But Tampa Bay doesn’t have the quality outside rushers of some of the Packers’ upcoming opponents, so things will get much tougher for him in the next few weeks.

On Dec. 17 at Carolina, Spriggs will get his share of snaps against the ageless Julius Peppers (8½ sacks this season, 152 for his career). The week after that, he’ll go up against one of the best players on one of the best defenses in the league, Minnesota’s Everson Griffen (12 sacks).

In those games, it’s safe to assume Spriggs will need help, maybe a lot of help. And with Bakhtiari manning the other side, McCarthy should be able to give it to him.

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Open screen door

The Packers have had huge problems defending the screen pass ever since the New Orleans Saints screened them to death in Week 7. Those issues continued Sunday.

One of the weaknesses of their defense, at least when they play their base or standard nickel, is the lack of speed at inside linebacker with Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan. The two — and especially Martinez — have been very good against the run all season. But they have trouble getting out to screens and getting deep enough drops in downfield coverage.

Each did make a good play defending a screen against the Bucs. With the Bucs in hurry-up offense late in the second quarter, Martinez helped hold them to a field goal when he read a screen, beat a double-team block in the open field and dropped halfback Peyton Barber for only a one-yard gain. And on a first down in the third quarter, Ryan read a screen and tackled Barber in the open field for no gain.

But Ryan also was responsible for a 34-yard gain on a Barber screen about halfway through the second quarter. On that one, Ryan bit hard on a run fake, and when he realized it was a pass turned to run full speed to his drop spot. He knew he couldn’t get to his spot by using the technique he’s supposed to — a 45-degree turn so he can have eyes on the backfield while dropping.

With Ryan’s back to the play, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston dumped off the screen, and Barber had a huge alley for the 34-yard pickup.

Late in the fourth quarter with the score tied, Martinez missed an open-field tackle just past the line of scrimmage that sprung running back Charles Sims for what would have been a huge 20-yard gain. But the play was called back because Bucs center Evan Smith was penalized for blocking Martinez in the back. Smith did push Martinez in the back, so the call was correct. But it appeared to come a split second after Sims already had juked the linebacker, so it probably didn’t affect the play.

Expect the Packers’ defense to see plenty more screens in the final month of the season.

Extra points

Maybe it was because he saw the value Martellus Bennett brought to the offense as a blocker in Bennett’s half season with the Packers, but tight end Richard Rodgers has been a much better blocker in recent weeks than he was his first three years in the NFL. Rodgers is by no means a masher, but he appears to be putting more effort into blocking and has been another reason the Packers’ run game has been effective in Aaron Rodgers’ absence.

Defensive tackle Kenny Clark has been mucking up the line as a run defender all season with his stout play in the middle, but Sunday he had his best game as a pass rusher in his 1¾ seasons with the Packers. Clark had two sacks, including on the play where Winston fumbled and Dean Lowry returned it 62 yards for a touchdown. 

Grade card

Quarterback: Brett Hundley had a horrid day passing (48.3 rating) but made some big plays with his legs (seven carries, 66 yards) and won the game. Grade:  C-

Offensive line: The pass protection was good across the board (two sacks), Hundley rarely was under fire and the Packers consistently ran the ball downhill (199 yards rushing). Grade: B+

Receivers: Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson caught all their catchable balls, and Adams ran well after the catch. Randall Cobb had no targets. Grade: B-

Tight ends: Richard Rodgers is showing more effort as a run blocker, but he and Lance Kendricks combined for only 15 yards on two catches. Grade: C+

Defensive line: Bucs halfbacks Peyton Barber, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers combined for 143 yards on 29 carries, so it was a down day stopping the run. But Dean Lowry returned a fumble 62 yards for a touchdown, and tackles Mike Daniels (one-half sack) and Kenny Clark got some pressure as pass rushers up the middle. Grade: B

Linebackers: Clay Matthews had 2½ sacks. Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan (21 tackles combined) weren’t bad against the run, but gave up some gains on passes to the flat and in the alley. Grade: C

Cornerbacks: Davon House, Damarious Randall and Josh Hawkins all had a role in keeping big-play wideouts Mike Evans (two catches for 33 yards) and DeSean Jackson (two catches for 24 yards) from making any backbreaking plays. Grade: B

Safeties: Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Josh Jones also played a part in holding down Evans and Jackson. Jones was a factor when he rolled up to the line of scrimmage for run defense. Grade: B-

Special teams: Justin Vogel had a 42.3-yard net on four punts, Trevor Davis averaged 30.3 yards on kickoff returns even though he had a 70-yarder called back because of a holding penalty, and the kickoff coverage team gave up only 20 yards on the one Mason Crosby kickoff that was returned. Grade: B+



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