GREEN BAY — Another game, another set of elite edge rushers lined up across from Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari.
Sunday’s matchup against the Denver Broncos at Lambeau Field will mark the third time in three regular-season games where the Green Bay Packers’ veteran offensive tackles will go head-to-head with dynamic outside duos capable of putting extreme pressure on the quarterback.
First it was Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd of the Chicago Bears, then it was Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen of the Minnesota Vikings. The Broncos will send out Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who combined for 26.5 sacks last season, to take runs at Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers off the edge.
The gauntlet of great pass rushers faced by Bulaga and Bakhtiari will end eventually, just not this week.
“That’s the NFL now,” Bulaga said Wednesday. “There’s no such thing as a warmup. Every team I feel has two to three really good edge rushers and they rotate them through and they’re productive. You’ve just got to be prepared, especially with the quarterback that we have. Everyone wants to sack him. Everyone wants to get hits on him. So you have to be ready to go from snap 1 of Week 1 all the way until the last snap of the final game.”
Indeed, there was no easing into the season for Bulaga and Bakhtiari, who, when healthy, form one of the NFL’s top tackle tandems. Only one pair of edge rushers — Kansas City’s Chris Jones and Dee Ford — had more sacks that Miller and Chubb last season.
Despite an unproductive offense, Bulaga, happy and healthy after a rare offseason without surgery, was outstanding as the Packers won their first two games. Bakhtiari struggled uncharacteristically against the Bears, but overcame a sore back and was his usual reliable self against the Vikings.
Neither Miller nor Chubb has a sack in Denver’s 0-2 start to the season, but don’t be fooled. New coach Vic Fangio, the defensive coordinator in Chicago last season and a man who knows the Packers personnel well, will figure out ways to get them going, perhaps as soon as Sunday.
“I think that’s the nature of the league,” Rodgers said. “Everybody is trying to get the more pass rushers, the better. We faced some tough ones the last two weeks. Obviously, the first week with a couple great ones, and last week with a couple great ones, and this week with a couple great ones as well. So the stress is definitely on our tackles every week.”
The stress is building on the Packers offense in general. Once the euphoria of Sunday’s victory over the Vikings and the 2-0 start wore off, people began to scrutinize an offense that has scored a paltry 31 points and played only one good quarter of football.
Do the Packers need a complementary threat opposite wide receiver Davante Adams? Are they using halfback Aaron Jones too little or too much? Will they ever adjust to the offensive scheme of first-year coach Matt LaFleur?
Besides Rodgers, there is one area of the offense where there is no worry — except for injury — and that is tackle. In a league where pass rushers are prized almost as much as quarterbacks, the presence of Bulaga and Bakhtiari make Green Bay a fortunate team. The Packers have the luxury of lining up with tackles who can neutralize elite pass rushers with only moderate help, a rarity in the league.
Although the heavy lifting will be left to Bulaga and Bakhtiari, LaFleur most assuredly will throw a few schematic curveballs at Miller and Chubb, the heart of Denver’s traditionally strong defense.
“That’s right at the forefront of your plan,” La Fleur said. “Any time that you have guys that can singlehandedly wreck a game, you better have a plan for that. Again, I’ve got a lot of respect for those two guys and I think they’ve got a lot of other guys on that defense, as well, and also for Vic Fangio.”
So why haven’t Miller and Chubb had a sack in Denver’s first two games? Fangio called the games unusual and said Miller and Chubb have played well otherwise. LaFleur said Denver’s opponents have gotten the ball out of the pocket quickly.
“You’re always conscious of where those two guys are and trying to present them with different scenarios, whether it’s running backs, tight ends, receivers — people trying to get a piece of them — or changing up the protections,” LaFleur said. “Those are two of the premier rushers in the National Football League, so I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the fact that they don’t have any sacks right now. I know that they are a hungry football team and I’m sure those two in particular are going to be ready to get after it this weekend.”
It has to be a comfortable feeling for LaFleur knowing he has Bulaga and Bakhtiari as the cornerstone of any plan he devises. Bulaga has played 16 games in only two of his nine seasons, but the combination of an offseason spent working out instead of rehabbing and LaFleur giving him an occasional rest day has him feeling as well as he has in years. Bakhtiari wasn’t on the injury report the Packers released Wednesday, so his back might no longer be an issue.
The Packers can only hope so because Bulaga and Bakhtiari are essential for keeping them out of the third-and-long situations that have stalled their offense in the first two games.