GREEN BAY – Four years and five weeks ago, Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari was playing in his fifth pro game, lined up across from a five-time Pro Bowl pass rusher.
Now a Pro Bowler himself, Bakhtiari held his own against Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs that day. Suggs, who would be chosen for his sixth Pro Bowl in 2013, compiled some tackles but did not have a sack in Green Bay’s road victory.
Bakhtiari could take some pride in that as he charged ahead in his promising rookie season. He also took quite an education with him.
“He threw the book at me,” Bakhtiari said this week as he prepares to face Suggs for the second time in his career, Sunday at Lambeau Field.
To hear Bakhtiari rattle off what he went up against that afternoon in Baltimore is eye-opening in itself.
“He tested me with speed, with power, inside moves, outside moves, double-hand swats, speed and rip, spins, swims inside, swims outside,” he said. “He did a lot. He’s played a lot, so he’s comfortable doing a multitude of moves and disguises, and through that, also working the mind games, too.”
Wait, so on top of all those techniques, there are mind games as well?
“Body language says a lot,” Bakhtiari continued. “Certain guys try to use their body language and then start building tendencies, and break their own tendencies, where you think he’s going to do one thing (from) film study, and then he ends up doing something different. It speaks to his own self-scouting.”
It also speaks to how a pass rusher lasts 15 years in the league and racks up 120 career sacks, 50 more than anyone else in franchise history. With six double-digit sack seasons to his credit, Suggs leads the Ravens again in 2017 with 5½, now two years removed from missing most of the 2015 campaign with an Achilles injury.
If there’s any decline in his game, it’s hard to find. Meanwhile, Bakhtiari has been on a steady career climb since getting thrust into an unexpected starting job as a fourth-round draft pick in 2013 following Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury in training camp.
Bakhtiari has often said when he looks at film from his rookie season, he doesn’t even recognize the player. Not only has he gotten considerably bigger and stronger, but his blocking techniques are so much more refined.
Earning selection to his first Pro Bowl last year, Bakhtiari couldn’t follow it up as planned as 2017 began. He sustained a severe hamstring injury in the opener against Seattle and missed the next four games.
After playing just the first half against Minnesota a month ago, he’s been back to full-time duty since. The bye week seemed to be the last round of rest and recovery he needed to get back to his Pro Bowl form.
Just in time for another round with Suggs.
“I think his savviness stands out,” Bakhtiari said. “He’s very good at manipulating certain types of rushes, and he’s a guy that will take chances when they present themselves.
“Other guys might have to keep rush integrity, collapse the pocket, keep outside contain. But for him, if he sees an opportunity, he’s going to go take full advantage of it.”
Of course, nothing would help Bakhtiari and his linemates more in pass protection than getting the running game going like it was last week in Chicago.
The Packers finished the victory over the Bears with 37 rushes and 25 pass attempts. That’s not common in the Aaron Rodgers era, but the ground game provides vital support for third-year QB Brett Hundley as he continues to grow into the job.
The Ravens enter Sunday’s game ranked 28th in the league against the run and third against the pass. Running the ball is the key to success against Baltimore’s defense, as the Jaguars, Steelers, Bears and Vikings have all had big days on the ground in four of the Ravens’ five losses this season.
“It’s nice … nice to attack the opponent,” Bakhtiari said of run blocking. “In pass sets, we’re in more of a retreat mode. I’m the one having to absorb. So it’s fun to kind of pin your ears back and get after the defense.”
That’ll be Suggs goal, too. Football is the ultimate team game, but at its root are the one-on-one confrontations.
The one-on-ones don’t get much better than this.
“He’s a destructive force,” Bakhtiari said of Suggs. “I enjoy it, but at the end of the day it’s also very difficult, going against a guy that has all the tools.
“He’s a great player. He’s going to go down definitely in Baltimore’s history, if not even Canton. It’s another fun, exciting matchup I look forward to.”