From locker to locker, teammates don’t question his importance. David Bakhtiari is the Green Bay Packers' starting left tackle, and starting left tackles are invaluable in the NFL.
When they don’t play, people notice.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Bakhtiari’s three-game — and counting? — absence sent the Packers' offensive line into a tailspin. It hasn’t been the same unit without the starting left tackle, surprising only because Bakhtiari hasn’t been the line’s marquee player.
The group is built on two pillars at guard: Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga got a five-year, $33.75 million contract last offseason. In Bakhtiari’s absence, his value is becoming clear.
“He’s the starter,” Lang said. “He’s the guy. I think any time you can get your No. 1 guy out there, no matter what position it is, it definitely gives your team a little bit of a boost. You know he’s a guy who’s going to go out there and get the job done. It’s one less guy you’ve got to worry about.”
Bakhtiari wasn’t available when the Packers traveled to the Arizona Cardinals late last month. Not coincidentally, there was plenty to worry about. The Packers allowed nine sacks, eight with quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the backfield. It was the most sacks they’d allowed in more than three years.
Without Bakhtiari, the Packers have started three different players at left tackle in the past three weeks. They’ve combined to allow six sacks. Three were strip-sack fumbles returned for touchdowns, including two at the Cardinals. Another was a safety last week in Washington.
In all, Bakhtiari’s absence has directly granted the defense 23 points.
“That left tackle position,” Lang said, “it’s tough to play. It’s the premier spot on the line. A lot of tough duty out there going against the best pass rushers. For the most part in our offense, you’re asked to do it one-on-one the majority of the time. Dave’s a guy who’s proven over time that he gets the job done.”
The offensive line’s recent struggles revealed something teammates already knew. Bakhtiari, often overlooked, has been a stalwart at left tackle since the Packers drafted him in the fourth round in 2013. Not only was he consistently available before his ankle injury — he started the first 49 games of his career — but Bakhtiari took significant steps in his development each year.
There were growing pains three years ago when Bakhtiari was inserted at left tackle after Bulaga’s torn ACL in training camp. He allowed 10 sacks as a rookie, including two in the Packers' wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That number shrank to seven last season, more than double his total in 2015.
Before Bakhtiari’s injury, the Packers had no need to worry about their premier offensive line position. In his third season, Bakhtiari has played his best football. He allowed just three sacks in 14 games, half the sacks Packers left tackles have allowed in his short absence. He has allowed no sacks in his past nine games.
“He’s the starting left tackle for a reason,” said Sitton, who allowed two sacks trying to replace Bakhtiari at left tackle in the regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. “I think he’s surely a better option than me out there.”
It’s unclear whether Bakhtiari will be available when the Packers return to Arizona for their NFC divisional playoff game Saturday night, although signs are pointing in a positive direction. Bakhtiari has practiced twice this week. Both times, his mobility has looked encouraging.
It shouldn’t take long for Bakhtiari to get up to speed. An offensive line operates on cohesion, five players working as one.
“You can replace a player,” Bakhtiari said, “but you can’t replace chemistry and how me and Josh operate.”
Ryan and Wes offer a mid-week update on the Packers' preparations for Saturday's NFC divisional playoff matchup at Arizona. (Jan. 13, 2016)
Sitton said it should take no time for him and Bakthiari to replicate their chemistry. Even if Bakhtiari has missed almost an entire month, Sitton said, the duo has played enough football together.
“I think we get right in there and get right back to where we were,” Sitton said. “It takes a couple of days with someone that you haven’t played next to, to kind of get your lingo down and get your communication down. It takes probably a week or two just to get the feeling, where your feet are and stuff like that. I’m speaking with somebody you haven’t been with.
“So with a guy you’ve played next to for a long time, it doesn’t take nearly that time. You kind of get in there and get right back to normal.”
The Packers want nothing more than to have their offensive line return to normal this week. A year after the same five starters were available for the final 16 games, 2015 has been a different season. In 17 games counting playoffs, the Packers have had their preferred five offensive line starters seven times. They haven’t had the five together since Nov. 22 at the Minnesota Vikings, one of their best games this season.
The low point came Dec. 27 in Arizona. While Bakhtiari wasn’t the only offensive lineman missing snaps because of injuries — at one point, there were four backups on the field — his absence made the biggest impact. Of the Cardinals’ eight sacks against Rodgers, four were against backup left tackle Don Barclay.
“I think everybody in this building has realized the good work that he’s done for us,” Lang said. “I don’t think anybody in this locker room or in this building has ever underestimated the type of player that he is. He’s a solid guy out there for us. He gets the job done when he’s on the field. The couple guys that were filling in for him, it’s tough duty. That’s a tough position to play. You’re going against the best pass rushers.
“Dave’s a guy who’s shown that he’s best fit to handle that situation. He’s a guy that, if we get him back, will definitely be a good boost for us.”
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