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Packers vs. Washington: Two X-Factors

Going beyond the obvious names, these players could have key roles for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday against Washington.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers will host the Washington Football Team at noon Sunday. Looking beyond the obvious names such as Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, these players – one on offense and one (position group) on defense – will have key roles as Green Bay tries to extend its winning streak to six.

Offense: LG Jon Runyan

On Washington’s star-studded defensive line, which features four first-round picks, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen might be the best of the bunch.

Allen has been an Aaron Donald-style menace to start this season. Officially, he’s got three sacks and ranks third in the NFL with 14 quarterback hits. For context, when he had a career-high eight sacks in 2018, he had 15 quarterback hits. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s third among interior defensive linemen with 25 quarterback pressures.

Most defensive tackles play both left and right, depending on the strength of the formation. Not Allen. He generally lines up on the defense’s right. That means left guard Jon Runyan is going to get a heaping helping of the 2017 first-rounder pick. After failing to win the starting job in training camp, Runyan has started the last five weeks and allowed zero sacks.

Nothing bothers a quarterback more than pressure in his face, so Runyan (presumably with as much help as possible from center Lucas Patrick, though the other tackle, Daron Payne, is no joke) will play a crucial role. If given time, Aaron Rodgers should be able to slice and dice Washington’s secondary. If he’s not given time, it’s going to be a challenging afternoon.

“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 of Runyan this week. “Obviously, growing up in a football family, he loves ball and he doesn’t fear much. Watching the Chicago game last year, he did a great job up there going against that front. But I think that in this game, those players are so good they’re going to get you a couple times. I think the good players understand that that’s going to happen. 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.”

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Defense: LBs Krys Barnes, Oren Burks and Jaylon Smith

This won’t be about one player lined up alongside De’Vondre Campbell. Against Chicago, Campbell played all 61 snaps while Oren Burks played 19, Jaylon Smith played 17 in his debut and starter Krys Barnes played 13. None of the three played well.

Barnes, coming off a string of quality performances, gave up a touchdown pass and didn’t play particularly well against the run, either. Burks got off to a strong start to the season but has tackled poorly and regressed toward his career standard. Smith missed one tackle and generally looked like a chicken with his head cut off.

Washington’s offense features running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic as frequent targets in the passing game. McKissic has caught 21-of-28 passes for 215 yards, including a 56-yard gain and a 30-yard touchdown. Gibson has caught 12-of-16 passes for 119 yards, including a 73-yard touchdown. Moreover, for added stress on the linebackers, quarterback Tyler Heinicke is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

That attack will test the new timeshare at linebacker. Washington might want to really go after Smith when he’s in the lineup. The coaches hope he’ll play better now that he’s got another week of practice in his back pocket.

“It’s hard, especially playing the position that he plays,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. “That’s why you have OTAs, that’s why you have an offseason, that’s why you have training camp. You play roughly 1,000 snaps in a season. Usually, if you go back and count the practice reps from an OTA period and a training-camp period, it’s about 1,000 snaps. He’s learning a playbook in October. Just visiting with him, it’s amazing what a week does. Just talking to him today, how he feels today on Thursday compared to last Thursday, he’s like, ‘Oh, my god.’ He’s going to make strides every single week.”

Position coach Kirk Olivadotti said there was “nothing terribly egregious” about Smith’s first game in a Packers uniform, which isn’t exactly resounding praise. But he does play a mentally challenging position, so experience should help.

Of Smith digesting the scheme, Olivadotti said, “He’s eating the elephant one bite at a time.”


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