Return of the Mack: Packers RT Bryan Bulaga Faces Huge Challenge

The Packers have faced five of the top 10 sackers in the NFL this season. On Sunday, they get the new leader. The Raiders’ Khalil Mack is on a roll and will probably present the toughest test of the season for tackle Bryan Bulaga.

The Green Bay Packers are preparing this week to face the NFL’s hottest pass rusher.

The Oakland Raiders’ Khalil Mack has been on a tear over the last three games, recording nine sacks to boost his total to a league-leading 14 on the season. Last Sunday at Denver in a 15-12 upset of the Broncos, Mack tallied five sacks to tie a franchise record.

“Well, you just have to turn on the last game. That jumps off the screen at you for sure,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy Wednesday in his evaluation of the No. 5 overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Though the Raiders present an uncommon opponent for the Packers (they last played in Oakland in 2003), McCarthy and his squad have some familiarity with Mack. They saw him make some impressive plays in a 2014 preseason game at Lambeau Field when he was just a raw rookie.

“I was very impressed with him in live action,” said McCarthy. “I know as a coach anytime you have a chance to evaluate a player live on the field, to me that’s really where you get the best evaluation. Extremely athletic. Great motor. Just a very good, instinctive football player.”

All five of Mack’s sacks last Sunday – four from the left side and one from the right – came after being engaged in one-on-one combat as a defensive end. The Broncos made no adjustments and quarterback Brock Osweiler showed little mobility escaping the pocket except on the last sack, when Mack took Osweiler down from behind.

Though he basically used one-armed power moves on all five of his sacks, Mack in passing rushing situations likes to line up wide to create space from the opposing tackle. The Packers saw this technique on a handful of plays in the preseason game against him.

On that August night, Mack had five tackles (two for loss) and an interception in less than a full game’s work. One of his tackles for loss came when tight end Andrew Quarless was beaten badly. His interception came when he snuffed out a Matt Flynn screen pass attempt similar to how the Packers’ Jayrone Elliot intercepted Seattle’s Russell Wilson earlier this season.

Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga was not involved in either failed play but did match up with Mack on 28 plays over five series that night. He knew then that Mack had talent. But this Sunday will be a much tougher challenge.

“He’s obviously improved from his rookie year. Looks more comfortable in the defense,” said Bulaga. “He just looks more comfortable with his play overall. He’s a very good player.”

Bulaga, who was making his return that preseason from a 2013 season-ending ACL, had Mack as his assignment on 10 running plays and 18 passing plays in the first half. He gave up one tackle for loss inside the 10-yard line and two pressures in pass protection but was hardly challenged otherwise. Only three times Bulaga got help from tight end chip blocks and one time he and guard T.J. Lang flattened Mack on a combination block. Three other times Mack dropped into pass coverage and several times when he did rush he looked to be in more of a read-and-react mode, which paid off on the interception of Flynn.

Mack made several all-rookie teams last season after posting 75 tackles, four sacks and one forced fumble. After a slow start to the 2015 season he has exploded. Pro Football Focus has Mack for 68 pressures – already 14 more than a season ago – only behind the Broncos’ Von Miller and the New York Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson. And as a 6-foot-3, 250-pound hybrid-type, he might be even better against the run, where PFF has him the highest-rated edge defender by a wide margin. Mack is second in the league with 20 tackles for loss. Clay Matthews, the Packers’ leader in tackles for loss, has 11.

Some are even beginning to talk of Mack as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

“You’ve got to be ready for everything,” said Bulaga of Mack’s skills. “He’s got good speed as well. He kind of shows a little bit of everything.

“A five-sack game, you kind of know when a guy has a game like that, when you’re watching it on tape and you see how he’s doing. The nine (sacks over three games) isn’t to me what he had in the last game is pretty impressive on its own. He’s very talented, very good player.”

All five of the Packers’ preferred starting offensive linemen are listed on this week’s injury report. Only guard Josh Sitton, however, did not participate in Wednesday’s practice. Bulaga is playing with a bothersome ankle injury that felled him in the fourth quarter of the Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Bears. He subsequently was inactive Dec. 3 at Detroit before returning after the mini-bye to play against Dallas, a game in which the Packers rushed for 230 yards, their most since the 2004 season.

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