GREEN BAY – A year ago, Justin McCray was working at the Westgate Hotel in Orlando, Lucas Patrick was parked on the Packers’ practice squad and Lane Taylor was getting his feet wet in his first year as a full-time starting NFL left guard.
Yet, there they stood Thursday night. This trio of former undrafted free agents separating a deep and talented Chicago defensive front from two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers in front of more than 78,000 at Lambeau Field.
And it succeeded.
In what’s become a tradition on the offensive line, the Packers made do with a handful of former undrafted free agents filling in, all equipped with a relentless next-man-up mentality in a 35-14 win over the Chicago Bears.
For their efforts, Head Coach Mike McCarthy confirmed during his Friday news conference that Taylor, McCray, Patrick, right guard Jahri Evans and center Corey Linsley would receive game balls when the team returned from its long weekend.
“I thought they played very well across the board,” McCarthy said. “That defensive front was exceptional. I think that’s the strength of their football team. Our guys played very well. I was very impressed with the performance, the in-game adjustments because you always have those.”
Operating on a short week, the Packers had an idea they’d likely be without both starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. With backup tackle Kyle Murphy placed on injured reserve Tuesday, the Packers broke the glass on the emergency option of starting Taylor at Bakhtiari’s left post.
The Packers incorporated more formations with two tight ends into their play calls and used their running backs to help chip block and disrupt Chicago pass-rushers Akeem Hicks, Leonard Floyd and Pernell McPhee.
There also were times the Packers emptied the backfield and relied on Rodgers’ instincts and their five offensive linemen to fend off whatever Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio threw their way.
The toughest assignment went to Taylor, who had one jog-through and a single move-the-ball period during two non-contact practices this week to prepare for his debut at left tackle.
Coaching from the sideline, Bakhtiari came away impressed with what he saw from his neighbor on the line, who signed a contract extension with the Packers earlier this month.
“We know how athletic Lane is,” Bakhtiari said. “He’s got some sweet feet and I was watching him in practice, I was giving him all the confidence he needs. We talked (when) watching film, I told him everything I know and the things I see going into a game and the tips and tricks, but at the end of the day it’s him going out there and executing and being a good player.”
While Taylor was untested at the most important position on the offensive line, the Packers had 22 career starts to gauge how the fifth-year veteran might respond to the situation.
Patrick and McCray, with one NFL start between them, fell more into the category of relative unknowns going into the contest. With Don Barclay out, it was initially expected McCray and Patrick would provide interior depth, while Murphy and 2016 second-round pick Jason Spriggs backed up the tackles.
Those plans quickly changed after Spriggs’ hamstring flared up in Atlanta and Murphy injured his foot Sunday against Cincinnati. With both on IR, it was up to offensive line coach James Campen and assistant Jeff Blasko to get McCray and Patrick ready to expand their resumes.
McCray had the slight advantage of taking reps for Bulaga at right tackle the past two weeks, but Thursday marked Patrick’s first offensive action in an NFL regular-season game.
Signed as a tryout player in the 2016 rookie orientation camp, Patrick (6-3, 313) traveled the hardest road any undrafted rookie can overcome in a quest to play in the NFL.
He then had his first training camp in Green Bay sabotaged by a hand injury that forced him to wear a club throughout the preseason.
While Patrick didn’t make the 53-man roster in 2016, he spent his entire rookie season on Green Bay’s practice squad before earning a spot in his second go-around this summer.
“You really can’t put it into words,” Patrick said. “It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of sleepless nights not knowing where you’re going to be. It’s pretty special, especially the way we won, who we won against. I couldn’t have asked for a better start, better experience playing with the guys we were with.”
McCray, who previously played with the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League in 2016, was discovered by Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith during a workout at the University of Central Florida’s pro day.
The 6-foot-3, 317-pound offensive lineman has given the Packers good bang for their buck, playing 371 offensive snaps going back to the preseason. He’s split his snaps at both guard positions, center and now right tackle in Bulaga’s absence.
“Home is wherever they need me to play,” McCray said. “Everybody in here had total faith in us. The guys in our room, we work hard every day and believe we can go out there and put any five on the line and make work of it. We didn’t do anything we didn’t expect to do.”
The Packers now have a long weekend to rest before returning on Tuesday. After using four different starting units in the first four games, the Packers remain hopeful things will settle down once Bakhtiari and Bulaga are back in the lineup.
The situation wasn’t exactly ideal for Taylor to slide over and two other undrafted free agents to join him in the starting lineup, but that’s the reality of the situation.
It goes back to what Rodgers often says to young players – there are no excuses. You have to be ready to play regardless of the situation or who is available.
While the Packers couldn’t have envisioned a situation unfolding like it did Thursday when four natural guards are in the starting lineup, it made for a night none of the three natural guards will ever forget.
“This is going to be a memory for the rest of my life,” Patrick said. “I’ll never forget this. I’ll never forget the words shared with fellow teammates, the opponent. It was really special.
“It doesn’t matter who it is. It doesn’t matter what numbers are at what position. We’re ready to go.”
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