GREEN BAY — Bryan Bulaga had taken nearly every snap positioned next to the same right guard for the past three years.
What began with a simple changeup on the offensive line in 2014 had seen Bulaga and T.J. Lang develop into one of the most reliable right-side pairings on any NFL offensive line.
That partnership was put on hold a few weeks ago when Lang sustained a foot injury during the opening drive in Tennessee, causing him to miss consecutive games for the first time since 2010.
A week later, veteran Don Barclay started next to Bulaga before exiting at halftime with a shoulder injury, leading to rookie second-round pick Jason Spriggs finishing the game at right guard.
Bulaga has continued to play at a high level despite the recent turnover. Although he won’t admit it, there have been plenty of players and coaches who have taken notice of Bulaga’s season, including Lang.
Watching Monday night’s 27-13 win over Philadelphia back in Green Bay, Lang made an observation on Twitter about Bulaga’s play that could apply to the starting right tackle’s entire season.
It quickly was followed by a question from a Twitter follower, who asked if Bulaga has played at an all-pro level this season to which Lang replied: “100%”.
When asked about his season, Bulaga points to areas of improvement and laments the handful of plays he’d like to have back among the more than 800 snaps he’s taken this season.
Ask those close to Bulaga, however, and you’ll hear a much different tune.
“I think this is going to be his best season when it’s all said and done,” said Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy this week, knocking on the wooden lectern in front of him for good luck.
Bulaga acknowledges a clean bill of health has helped his play on the field. He dealt with knee and ankle injuries a year ago that caused him to miss four games and affected his practice reps.
That hasn’t been the case this year. Bulaga has been a constant amidst a whirlwind of change on the offensive line. Along with getting used to a new partner in the trenches, Bulaga has fended off a series of challenging pass-rushers in recent weeks.
First, he stone-walled Ryan Kerrigan in Washington and then fought off Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham, a former first-round pick enjoying the most productive of his seven NFL seasons.
Bulaga believes the difference is health. He’s on pace to play in all 16 regular-season games for the first time since his rookie year and has avoided the injury report all season outside of a back issue that flared against Dallas in Week 6.
“I think being healthy helps a ton,” Bulaga said. “Not having anything major happen, and taking care of the body and doing everything right, staying healthy, has definitely been a factor.
“When you’re not having to deal with something every week that’s limiting your movement and mobility, that’s huge and I’ve been very fortunate this year with that.”
The absence of Lang has taken a little getting used to because of how many reps they took side by side since Bulaga started lining up next to him during the 2014 season.
There are subtle differences in the way a rookie like Spriggs, who played strictly left tackle at Indiana, might set up a combination block compared to how Lang did it, but Bulaga has been proactive about getting on the same page with the rookie.
It also requires more communication. A lot of the cues Bulaga and Lang use are based on muscle memory more than the actual words.
So when Spriggs was called into duty against Washington, Bulaga made sure to pull the rookie aside and give him a crash course on his tendencies and what to expect from the defensive line.
Spriggs said afterward that each word of advice was critical to him building comfort considering he’d only taken a handful of practice snaps at guard throughout the regular season.
“Bryan has played very well this season,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “I think it’s a tribute to him that he has had some different guards in there. That’s always a little difficult at times to get going, but Bryan has played against some good players and certainly done an excellent job for us.
“Players never really top out and he’s getting better. He’s gotten better this year and he’s getting better by the week. Bryan, I’m very proud of him. He’s done a heck of a job.”
The Packers face another stiff test this weekend against the Texans. With Lang doubtful to play, Bulaga likely will line up next to Spriggs or Barclay against Houston.
While all-pro J.J. Watt is on injured reserve, the Texans have two disruptive edge rushers in Whitney Mercilus and former first-overall pick Jadeveon Clowney in addition to inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who’s second on the team with four sacks.
“He’s had some tough matchups,” said McCarthy of Bulaga. “He’s going to have some matchups this week that will be a challenge, but he’s played extremely well.
“The fact he’s had a new guard in there since T.J.’s injury says a lot about him and even (center) Corey (Linsley), just to make that work because it’s a lot of moving parts, especially the way we play and the things we asked our linemen to do coordinated with our scheme and our quarterback. Bryan’s having an excellent year.”
McCarthy points out that Bulaga is a little lighter this year, which has only added to his mobility. Whatever the reason, Bulaga hopes to keep building on what he’s accomplished so far.
“It’s just the process of a season and going through it, and just trying to improve every week and get better at something every week,” Bulaga said. “Just trying to play my best ball to help the team win.”