Silverstein: Can't be blocked? Packers relying on line investment to withstand Khalil Mack

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - If you were doing a “Key Matchup” for the Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears game Sunday night at Lambeau Field, it might look something like this:

 $141 million vs. $130 million.

While the game could easily hinge on something far less sexy – say, a 30-yard field goal or a 1-yard touchdown run -- most of the buildup for the 197th meeting between the two teams surrounds Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack and the Packers’ offensive line.

That’s where the matchup comes in.

That $141 million? That’s how much Mack is worth to the Bears if he completes all six years of the deal he signed shortly after he was traded from the Oakland Raiders on Saturday.

That $130 million? That’s how much the starting offensive line is worth to the Packers if each guy plays the duration of his contract.

Newly acquired Chicago Bears player Khalil Mack speaks with the media during an NFL football news conference Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018, at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Ill.

The reason the dollars are so significant is they represent investment. The Bears are all in on the front seven and the Packers are all in at quarterback and offensive line.

There are, of course, other ways to evaluate the matchup.

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For rivalry's sake, let’s start with Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks’ take on the matchup between Mack and basically anybody who tries to block him. In a conference call with state reporters, Hicks, who led the Bears with 8 ½ sacks last year, basically called it a one-round fight.

“I know those five guys can’t block Khalil Mack,” Hicks said.

It so happened that Mack was sitting a few feet away from Hicks in the training room, so his bravado might have been a bit tongue-in-cheek.

But he didn’t stop there.

“You know, I really feel like this: They have to put their offensive line together however they do it and put their best product out on the field, but I don’t think their best product can block Khalil Mack,” he said.

And, speaking about right tackle Bryan Bulaga having to block Mack while coming back from a torn ACL, he added, “Well, I think it affects guys when they come back from an injury, especially older guys like Bulaga. But I don’t think he had a chance to block Khalil Mack in the first place.”

Now that’s great material to stoke a rivalry, but we’re talking numbers and not words here.

The Bears invested a boatload of real and salary-cap dollars into one of the top five defensive players in the NFL because they felt he could turn a good Bears defense into a dominating one.

If you think the Packers don’t fear Mack, go back to their game in Oakland in 2015 when they played the Raiders with a healthy offensive line that featured David Bakhtiari and Bulaga at tackle, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang at guard and JC Tretter at center.

Coach Mike McCarthy refused to run the ball at Mack. On 18 occasions, he ran to the side opposite Mack, 11 times leaving him unblocked because it was an outside zone and Mack was not going to chase the runner down from behind. On just five occasions did they run at him.

On passing plays, quarterback Aaron Rodgers took mostly three-step drops so he could get rid of the ball and may not have taken a seven-step drop all game. He completed 22 of 39 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown with one interception.

In his 142 starts, he has averaged 12.1 yards per completion, but in this game, he averaged 9.3 because he was throwing well before Mack had a chance to even get close to him. He completed just two passes of 20 or more yards and one was a short pass that Randall Cobb turned into a 23-yard gain.

The Packers did this three years ago when Mack was still a pup. He has since been the NFL defensive player of the year (2016) and has racked up the second-most sacks of any player (36 ½) in the NFL since 2015.

“He's a complete player,” Bulaga said Wednesday. “You look at what he does obviously in the pass game. He has power, he has speed, he has good hands, so from a pass-rushing standpoint, he is a complete rusher.

“Then he plays the run really well, too. So, he's kind of a total package defensive end, and he's a very smart player, too. He deserves all that money.”

The Bears improved their pass rush with one massive payment, but the Packers have been building their offensive line over the course of the last eight seasons. Bulaga joined the starting ranks in 2010, Bakhtiari in ’13, center Corey Linsley in ’14, guard Lane Taylor in ’16 and right guard Justin McCray last year.

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Bakhtiari is the bell cow. He’s the highest paid and has been a second-team All-Pro each of the last two seasons. Bulaga was one of the best right tackles in the game before he tore his right ACL last November. Linsley and Taylor are both on second contracts and McCray won his job through sheer grit.

Former general manager Ted Thompson left the Packers short in some areas but not the starting offensive line. He built it to protect Rodgers because he knew the other teams’ quickest way to NFC North dominance was to stop the division’s best quarterback.

Depth was a problem last year and could be a problem again, but starting Week 1, the Packers are at full strength and Rodgers gets the luxury of playing behind them knowing they can handle assignments last year’s group couldn’t.

“When those guys are healthy, we played a lot of football together, especially the four of those five,” Rodgers said. “So, we’re able to do some more stuff than if we had some backups in there.”

If the Packers figure out a way to stop Mack on Sunday night, it won’t mean that much. He missed all of training camp with the Raiders and will go through a padded practice for the first time this week.

Bears coach Matt Nagy said he’s hopeful Mack will play. You could see him bringing in Mack on passing downs only and letting him rush the quarterback.

A better judge of how he’ll match up against the Packers will come Dec. 16 when the Bears host a rematch at Soldier Field.

The Packers have invested almost as much money in their offensive line as the Bears did in Mack and this will be the first of many opportunities to show if it has been worth it. If they’re going to get out of this division alive, the Packers will have to block some of the best in the business.

Might as well start in Week 1.


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