Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Chad Clifton protects quarterback Matt Flynn during the Jan. 1 game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. It was Clifton's first game action since suffering a knee injury Oct. 9 at Atlanta. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
Chad Clifton couldn’t have drawn a much more difficult assignment for his return to full-time duty at left tackle than New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
The 35-year-old Clifton played 25 snaps in the Packers’ regular-season finale against Detroit two weeks ago as his tuneup for the playoffs after missing 10 games because of hamstring and back injuries. Now the Packers are looking for him to go the full 60 minutes in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Giants, and most of the time he’ll probably be matched against Pierre-Paul, who in his second NFL season has blossomed into one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
“Obviously, they’re a talented front,” Clifton said Thursday. “You can see that just by watching tape and on TV. I’m just taking the approach like I do every other game, and I’m going to try to go out there and help the team and try to play well.”
The last time the Packers faced the Giants, on Dec. 4 at MetLife Stadium, Pierre-Paul was the dominant defensive player on the field. Though he had no sacks — he had one wiped out by a penalty — he unofficially had eight pressures and three quarterback hits while mostly going against Clifton’s replacement, Marshall Newhouse.
Pierre-Paul, the No. 15 pick overall in the 2010 draft, has played near or at that level in most games this season, even against the best tackles he faced. He finished this regular season ranked No. 4 in the NFL in sacks with 16˝.
What separates him from most outside rushers in the NFL is that along with his quickness off the edge, he’s big for a defensive end (6-foot-5, 278 pounds), which lends him more power as a bull rusher.
“He’s a long guy that plays with an extremely high motor,” said James Campen, the Packers’ offensive line coach. “His effort to me is what really shows up on the field, he plays with a lot of effort. As far as him from last year to this year, obviously he’s improved a ton. He’s one of the best to play the position right now.”
Pierre-Paul’s combination of power and speed presents a big challenge for Clifton, who has been a starting left tackle in the NFL since his rookie season of 2000. Even as he’s moved into his mid-30s, Clifton has continued to handle speed rushers well, but before sustaining the torn hamstring on Oct. 9 at Atlanta, he was having more trouble with bull rushes than he had in previous seasons.
Early in his return against the Lions two weeks ago, Clifton struggled handling power rushes and gave up a sack on the Packers’ first series. He later became more stout as he adapted to his first game play in 2˝ months, and the Packers also started helping him more with chip blocks by backs and tight ends.
Clifton has had two weeks since that game to sharpen his skills after the long layoff. He had only one practice in pads before his return, but since has had two more — one last week and another Thursday.
He appears to have kept his weight down during his rehabilitation from injury, and Campen said his left tackle’s conditioning and stamina are excellent.
“He looks good,” Campen said. “You do have some concerns with those layoffs. Big people tend to put a few pounds on. He clearly did not. He’s worked very hard to get to this point to get back on the field.”
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