GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers was in awe.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback knew early in the week his cobbled-together offensive line was going to consist of center Corey Linsley and four guards — including starting left guard Lane Taylor, who’d be shifting to the all-important left tackle position, a place he’d pretty much never manned in his years of football.
And while Rodgers went into Thursday night’s game against the Chicago Bears with hope, he also — truth be told — went in with doubts.
Then, something remarkable happened. The Bears won the toss and opted to give the Packers the ball first — perhaps, to see what their ramshackle line was made of.
Ten plays — five runs, five passes, including a 26-yarder to tight end Martellus Bennett on third-and-1 — and 75 yards later, Rodgers’ all-white Color Rush uniform was still sparkling clean, and the Packers were in the end zone on a 5-yard Rodgers-to-Davante Adams touchdown pass.
Afterward, someone asked the quarterback when he realized that things were going to be OK, that the line’s three fill-in starters — Taylor at left tackle, Lucas Patrick at Taylor’s usual left guard spot and Justin McCray at right tackle — were going to be able to get the job done.
“The first drive. We came out, ran the ball effectively, and then, the protection was really good,” Rodgers replied, unable to hide his astonishment. “We gave up two sacks (all night), both probably coverage sacks. That was pretty impressive, those guys. A fantastic job.
“(I was) really proud of Lucas; I’ve kind of been in his corner for a long time — I just enjoy his approach, his attitude, the way he plays. Justin at right tackle did a fantastic job. And Lane, the versatility there, never really having played left tackle before, to come out and play so well … I’m just really proud of those guys.”
He wasn’t the only one.
On Monday morning, coach Mike McCarthy had gone to offensive line coach James Campen and assistant Jeff Blasko to try to figure out how to hodge-podge the line together, knowing starting left tackle David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga (ankle) weren’t going to be ready on a short week and with the team’s next three options at tackle (Kyle Murphy, Jason Spriggs, Don Barclay) all on injured reserve.
Complicating matters: The short week meant the line would have only two quasi-practices to work together. No wonder not even McCarthy knew what to expect that first possession.
“There was a little bit of wait-and-see. I mean, let’s be honest. That first drive was … that’s a real testament to those guys,” McCarthy said. “Because I wasn’t just calling plays. I was gathering information and that’s one as a coach … I know James and Jeff will look back on that one with a big smile on their face. And the players will also.”
Perhaps the most impressive performance was turned in by Taylor, who remembered — vaguely — having played tackle one other time in his football life. He thought it might’ve been in the spring of his sophomore year at Oklahoma State, when he lined up for one play during the intrasquad scrimmage. On that play, the quarterback ran a roll-out and threw an interception, so Taylor never got to do even a traditional pass set on the play.
Otherwise, Taylor had never been anything but a guard — in high school in Arlington, Texas; for 50 starts at Oklahoma State in college; and for 1,508 snaps in the NFL before Thursday night.
In the Packers’ 35-14 win over the Bears, though, he played 55 snaps there. While McCarthy and Rodgers certainly helped by drawing up and executing a get-the-ball-out-quickly game plan, Taylor was a godsend.
“You look at Lane Taylor,” McCarthy said. “I mean, he had a jog-through on Tuesday and one move-the-ball drill on Wednesday to get ready to play left tackle.
“Those guys didn’t even blink. I mean, there were never any questions. Lane just stepped out there, he took the practice reps and I thought those guys did a heck of a job. They kept us in a very flexible game plan. (In my) experience, there’s times you have to play close to the vest and you can’t take advantage of your perimeter players, particularly Aaron and our perimeter players. But that wasn’t the case.”
Taylor learned of his assignment when he reported to work Tuesday morning. Although neither Tuesday or Wednesday’s practice was in pads, he asked outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Chris Odom to get after him as hard as they could. They obliged, and Taylor spent the rest of his free time on his iPad, breaking down play after play after play of Bakhtiari and Bulaga at work. He also sought their input in several conversations throughout the week.
“I just drowned myself in tackle knowledge and watching film. I was still even watching the guard on film on accident when I was studying,” said Taylor, who signed a three-year, $16 million contract extension on Sept. 4. “When they told me I was going to play tackle, I bought all-in like I’ve done it for years. I put the same effort in that I do as a guard as a tackle, doing everything I could do to learn — getting tips from Bryan, from David. They were a big help in understanding the tackle position. I watched lots of film on them. I knew the guys I was going against. I tried to put myself in a good position.”
This wasn’t the first time McCarthy tried playing an accomplished left guard at tackle. With Bakhtiari sidelined with an ankle injury for the 2015 regular-season finale against Minnesota, three-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton got the call to protect Rodgers’ blind side, with Taylor starting in Sitton’s place at guard.
It did not go well. Sitton gave up two sacks — including one that caused a fumble that was recovered by Minnesota for a touchdown – in the Packers’ 20-13 loss.
“Yeah, there were flashbacks,” Taylor said, referring to that game. “That’s how it is at tackle. It’s a tough position. You’re usually getting the best pass rusher. There’s a lot of space, a lot of movement out there.”
And Taylor handled it all. While the Packers hope Bakhtiari and Bulaga will be ready for their next game Oct. 8 at Dallas, at least they know they can survive without them — something they weren’t so certain of before Thursday night.
“Obviously we’d love to get Bryan and David back at some point,” Rodgers said. “But we stand here today feeling like we have more depth and more confidence in those guys than we had yesterday. I’m really proud of those guys.”