GREEN BAY – Two years ago, it was an under-the-radar matchup between two up-and-coming players.
Come Sunday night at Lambeau Field, the rematch between Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari and Giants pass rusher Olivier Vernon will get plenty of the spotlight.
Back in 2014, Bakhtiari and Vernon went head-to-head on a long, hot October afternoon in Miami. Bakhtiari was a second-year pro making steady strides while Vernon was in his third year coming off an 11½-sack season in 2013.
Vernon is one of three prized free agents the Giants added to revamp their defense this season, and in a frustrating loss at Minnesota this past Monday night, he arguably had more success disrupting the Vikings’ offense than any other defender.
“Good player. There’s a reason he got paid, but I knew he deserved it way back then,” Bakhtiari said. “He’s a hell of a player.”
Bakhtiari, of course, has since been paid as well. He received a multi-year contract extension from the Packers last month, six months before the 2013 fourth-round pick would have hit the open market.
In that 2014 Miami game, both players had their moments. Vernon sacked Aaron Rodgers in the second quarter to force the Packers to settle for a field goal. Bakhtiari then kept him quiet until Green Bay’s frantic, game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, when he stripped Rodgers of the ball. T.J. Lang recovered the fumble to keep the Packers alive.
In fairness to Bakhtiari, Miami’s other pass rushers got to Rodgers first on that play, and Vernon came in late to make contact with the ball, getting credit for a half-sack and forced fumble. In any event, the experience against one another from the initial meeting cuts both ways.
“I have an idea, just like he does of me, but that was two years ago,” Bakhtiari said. “I’m sure he looks at film and sees things I do differently. I wouldn’t say I’m the same player I was two years ago. I wouldn’t say the same for him.
“I was 22. I probably was a little lighter, not as strong and not as studious of the game. The older you get, the slower the game gets.”
Vernon has just one sack through four games this season, but New York head coach Ben McAdoo views him as a player who “makes everyone better” and always has to be accounted for by the opposition.
The Giants’ pass rusher on the other side carries a similar pedigree in Jason Pierre-Paul. Much closer to full strength than he was last year after recovering from a fireworks accident, Pierre-Paul no longer has a bulky wrap on his surgically repaired hand.
Pierre-Paul made a name for himself with 16½ sacks back in 2011, his second season. He had 12½ sacks in 2014, before the accident, and has just two sacks in 12 games since returning.
“I don’t notice anything different,” said right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who will be matched up most of Sunday night against Pierre-Paul. “To me he looks like the same guy. Good motor, good pass rusher, good against the run.”
In five career games (four regular season, one postseason), Pierre-Paul has yet to record a sack against the Packers. He’s made an impact in other ways, most notably a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown against backup QB Scott Tolzien that sealed a Giants win in 2013.
For all the focus on rushing the passer, the Giants’ defensive line has been stout against the run. New York ranks ninth in the league in rushing yards allowed (84.0 per game) and third in yards per carry (3.2).
The Giants’ front four of Vernon, Pierre-Paul, Johnathan Hankins (a second-round pick in 2013) and Damon Harrison (another free-agent pickup, from the Jets) make the defense go, particularly with New York’s secondary banged up.
The Giants have committed considerable resources to that unit in an attempt to resurrect the dominant defensive line play that produced two Super Bowl titles under Tom Coughlin. Results so far have been mixed, but the Packers have seen the two edge rushers before and know what they’re in for.
“Clearly one of the strengths of their defense,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “I like both players. It’s definitely a focus of ours, and I think if you watch the first four games, it’s been a focus of every one of their opponents. Both players are excellent players.”
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