GREEN BAY – The Packers held out hope to the very last second on starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga possibly being available to play against the Atlanta Falcons.
However, the offense ultimately had to press on without either bookend of the offensive line Sunday night. Instead, the Packers turned to Kyle Murphy and Justin McCray to help stem the tide against one of the league’s fastest defensive fronts led by 2016 NFL sack champion Vic Beasley.
All things considered, the two played their part in helping contribute to an offensive line that’s had to be flexible since Bulaga first injured his ankle last month in practice.
A week after making his first NFL start at right tackle against Seattle, Murphy was summoned to protect the blind side of MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers with Bakhtiari and backup Jason Spriggs both out with hamstring injuries.
Although Murphy had been taking a few reps at left tackle since the start of the regular season, Sunday was his first extended playing time at the position since his senior year at Stanford.
“It’s a challenge when you have your older veterans go down and you have to move some guys around,” said Murphy, a 2016 sixth-round pick who played eight offensive snaps during his rookie season. “Justin hasn’t played any tackle position in three-plus years, I think. People were asking me and making a big deal about switching sides – he hasn’t played outside in multiple years, so I’m proud as heck of him. I think we all went out there and battled tonight to the end and just came up short.”
McCray, an undrafted free agent who played in the Arena Football League last year, hadn’t played right tackle since his senior year at the University of Central Florida in 2013.
A natural guard, McCray also has been serving as the Packers’ backup center for the past month since utility offensive lineman Don Barclay injured his ankle.
That was until this past week when the coaching staff asked him to start taking reps at right tackle. Veteran right guard Jahri Evans also played a key role in helping McCray handle his first foray at the position in an NFL regular-season game.
“I practiced a lot at it. (The coaches) prepared me the best they could,” McCray said. “Jahri is awesome. He’s always over-communicating and making sure I knew what was going on. I was in my playbook a lot this week as well, but he was just being a vet making sure I was comfortable out there.”
There were a few plays McCray would like back – namely a false start on third-and-1 and a chip block prior to Desmond Trufant’s 15-yard fumble return for a touchdown – but Evans praised the first-year offensive lineman afterwards for being up to an impossible task against Beasley.
The Packers used some formations with two and three tight ends to help their tackles, but also stayed true to form in operating in several empty and one-back sets.
“I think he did a hell of a job,” Evans said. “(Beasley) led the league in sacks last year. He’s not an easy out. He stepped up to the task. We just didn’t execute as a team. It wasn’t perfect out there, but it’s not easy.”
Bakhtiari, Spriggs, Barclay and Bulaga were visible throughout Sunday’s game, providing tips and advice to the two young offensive linemen between series on the Packers’ bench.
It was a learning experience for both Murphy and McCray, who saw their first NFL start at each position in front of a raucous crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Their performances were critical considering Green Bay’s only other option would’ve been undrafted rookie Adam Pankey, who was promoted from the practice squad this past week.
“We kept fighting. Nobody looked back,” Murphy said. “Everyone kept moving forward and believed we could still win the game. Seeing everyone on the sideline and looking at their eyes, I truly believe everyone thought we still could win this game at all points.”
Call to King: After playing six defensive snaps in last week’s game against Seattle, rookie second-round pick Kevin King saw extensive playing time against Atlanta.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound cornerback made a good showing for himself, recording three tackles and a deflection of a Matt Ryan pass intended for Julio Jones on second down after Atlanta’s offense received the ball at its own 44.
On the next play, safety Morgan Burnett deflected another pass intended for Jones to force the Falcons into a critical three-and-out at the time.
“Love it,” said cornerback Davon House of King’s performance. “He’s a fighter. He’s not scared of anyone. He made a couple good plays on Julio. Good (draft) pick.”
The Packers’ other second-round pick, safety Josh Jones, also played most of the second half after Kentrell Brice exited with a groin injury and didn’t return.
Defensive miscues: Clay Matthews moved within a ½ sack of the Packers’ all-time record with his 1½-sack performance against Atlanta, but that was the furthest thing on the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker’s mind after Sunday’s loss.
The Packers’ defense was on the receiving end of eight Atlanta plays of at least 19 yards, which paved the way to the Falcons scoring on four of their six first-half possessions.
“We knew what type of environment we were coming into,” Matthews said. “We didn’t do enough. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. It’s one game, but it’s unfortunate especially when you want to test yourself against the elite. You learn from it and get better. I’m sure you can take some positives away from it, but it’s hard to right now.”
The Packers were without one of their top defensive playmakers, defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who left in the first quarter with a hamstring injury and didn’t return.
Complete game coverage: Falcons 34, Packers 23