GREEN BAY — Yosh Nijman will draw all kinds of attention this week — not just from reporters asking him questions or from fans worrying about how he’ll protect the reigning NFL MVP’s blindside against the Los Angeles Rams’ pass rush.
But surely from the Rams’ defensive coaches as well, as they look for ways to use Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Leonard Floyd & Co. to exploit the Green Bay Packers being down to their third-string left tackle.
For as effective as Nijman was during a three-game stint earlier this season that even surprised quarterback Aaron Rodgers, this is what happens when a team has spent all season without its five-time All-Pro at the position in David Bakhtiari and now has lost his outstanding replacement, Pro Bowl left guard-turned-left tackle Elgton Jenkins, for the remainder of the year to the same injury Bakhtiari suffered in practice last New Year’s Eve — a torn ACL in his left knee.
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But while everyone wonders how Nijman will handle whatever the Rams pass rush throws at him — Los Angeles comes into Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field with 29 sacks, tied for fourth-most in the NFL despite having played only 10 games this season — lining up alongside him in almost complete anonymity will be second-year left guard Jon Runyan, who may be the least-discussed member of an offensive line that has spent the entire year in flux because of injuries.
And that seems to be just the way Runyan likes it.
Since being the odd man out of the starting lineup for the season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, Runyan has been the starting left guard for the past 10 games and has played 643 of a possible 648 offensive snaps. He has yet to commit a penalty, has been charged with two of the 22 sacks the Packers have allowed and has an overall grade of 65.8 from Pro Football Focus.
“I came into the season, obviously, hoping to start. But that didn’t really come to fruition Game 1,” Runyan explained. “I kept that mentality and kept plugging away and, each week, I’ve just tried to focus on improving on one thing. Stuff keeps showing up that I’m trying to correct, but I’m just trying to keep attacking and getting better every week. I think I’m starting to play some of my best football, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m excited to see how far I can take it.”
Runyan, a 2020 sixth-round pick from Michigan who saw spot duty as a rookie (160 snaps), spent training camp in a crowded guard competition that began as a three-man battle that also included Lucas Patrick and Ben Braden. After Runyan and Patrick struggled in the preseason opener, the coaches added rookie fourth-round pick Royce Newman into the mix, and he wound up winning the right guard spot.
Newman and veteran right tackle Billy Turner are the only two offensive players to play all 705 snaps this season, and he’s committed two penalties, been charged with five sacks and has just a 50.9 overall grade from PFF. While Runyan hasn’t been flawless, he has been more consistent.
“He had some ups and downs in preseason, as we saw. But the one good thing about him is he keeps learning from his mistakes, keeps fixing those things and making new mistakes instead of the same old ones,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich explained. “That’s what we say in the O-line room: ‘Don’t repeat the mistakes. Make new mistakes and fix the old ones.’ He’s just doing a good job with that.
“He just plays hard, he plays with great effort, he uses his fundamentals. He’s not perfect, but he’s getting better with that. If he just keeps rolling, he’s going to do some good things around here.”
Runyan’s calm demeanor stems at least in part from having spent most of his life around the game. His father, Jon Sr., spent 14 NFL seasons on the offensive lines of the Houston Oilers, Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers before retiring in 2009, when Jon Jr. was 12.
“Even when he went in last year as a rookie, the great thing about him is it’s not too big for him,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “Obviously growing up in a football family, he loves ball and he doesn’t fear much.
“It’s about you recalibrating, ‘OK, what did I do wrong? Now if I just use my technique and fundamentals, I’ll be able to get my job done because I know I can.’ I think that’s something Runyan has done a really good job at. He’s done a good job. All those guys up front have really done a good job.”
Whether the line can sustain that level of play is hard to say, especially with Bakhtiari having undergone a follow-up arthroscopic knee surgery recently that could sideline him the rest of the year, Jenkins done for the season and rookie center Josh Myers still on injured reserve with a knee injury of his own and an unclear timetable for his return.
But the coaches know what they’ll get from Runyan, who bares little resemblance to the dude wearing No. 76 that he watched on film as a rookie.
“Looking at the guy that was playing last year, he was playing really tentative, he was playing really slow. His eyes were kind of everywhere, still trying to feel things out,” Runyan said.
“I think this year obviously I’m a lot more confident in what I’ve got going on, comfortable, the game’s kind of slowed down for me. How comfortable I am with the guys in there, whether it was Josh, Lucas, Elgton, Yosh, whoever’s out there next to me, I feel like this time we’ve spent together has just made us so much more comfortable.
“Sometimes, we just have non-verbal communication — we just kind of look at each other and know what each other is thinking. And I think that’s really important, especially when you’re on the road and you’re able to see that in the guy next to you’s eyes. You know what you’re both thinking on that play. So, I think that familiarity and just the way the game has slowed down for me, I feel like has been the biggest difference from Year 1 to Year 2.”