Rookie Bakhtiari must play like veteran for Packers
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--The message David Bakhtiari has been receiving since he stepped into the Green Bay Packers’ left tackle position is the same one that Don Barclay received when he stepped into the right tackle position late last year.
There are no such things as rookie mistakes.
So when Bakhtiari starts at left tackle in the season opener against San Francisco on Sunday, he’ll be under the same pressure Barclay was—and still is—to play like a veteran. It’s not exactly the definition of being eased into the job, but the Packers weren’t given the option of switching opponents when veteran Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season to injury.
“Honestly, something we talked about with him was you don’t have time to be a rookie,” right guard T.J. Lang said of Bakhtiari. “You don’t have time to make rookie mistakes. You have to grow up fast and the way he has handled himself through camp, in games, practices, in meetings, all indications are he’s ready to go.
“We’re counting on him. We’re not trying to put too much pressure on him, just let him go out there and do what he’s been doing—play.”
It’s not just Bakhtiari who is facing the pressure of filling a huge position on the Packers’ offense. On Monday, Barclay was officially given the keys to the right tackle position after outperforming veteran Marshall Newhouse during a five-week training camp competition.
Barclay, an undrafted free agent in 2012, has only six NFL starts under his belt and at one point this summer was working at center and guard. He’s the coaches’ choice over Newhouse, but it’s so close Newhouse might get some snaps in the opener.
Whatever the case, it’s obvious the Packers aren’t going into this game with Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher protecting the edges for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. And they definitely aren’t going up against the New Orleans Saints defense.
“There’s really no better way to test yourself than with a group like that, what San Fran offers,” Lang said. “So, we feel good about where we’re at right now. We’re fresh, we’re rejuvenated.
“I think we’re excited to get a chance to start a new year, start fresh, and show what we’ve been working on all offseason.”
The larger question is whether they can prevent the likes of Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald from coming around the corner and putting a hurt on Rodgers. And not only that, they’ve got to find a way to run the ball against a team that held opponents to 9.75 points per game in the preseason despite limited playing time from its starters.
The one thing the Packers do know is that they were not completely shut down on offense in the two games they played against the 49ers last season.
The San Francisco defense dominated far more in the regular-season opener at Lambeau Field than it did in the lopsided divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park on Jan. 15. Most of the Packers’ 324 yards in the opener were gained in the second half after they fell behind by 16 points.
In the playoff game, the Packers put together two 80-yard touchdown drives in the first half and had a 76-yard field goal drive early in the third quarter before the 49ers finally turned the screws with two key third-down stops.
The Packers accounted for two of the six highest totals in net yardage produced against the 49ers last season and limited them to four sacks, but they didn’t win either game and they led for only about 6 minutes 15 seconds combined.
After the playoff loss, coach Mike McCarthy went to work trying to figure out how he could improve his offensive line. His solution was to have Lang and Josh Sitton switch guard positions and move right tackle Bryan Bulaga to left tackle. And then he devised some changes in the running game with 2012 late-bloomer DuJuan Harris in mind.
When Bulaga went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the first week of camp, McCarthy had the option of putting Newhouse back at left tackle or going with Bakhtiari, the Colorado junior-eligible who had lasted until the fourth round because many scouts thought he wasn’t strong enough to handle the position.
He went with Bakhtiari, who rewarded him with a remarkably steady four-week performance. Bakhtiari played 111 snaps in four preseason games and spent a lot of time going up against outside linebacker Clay Matthews in blitz periods and one-on-one pass rush drills.
The whole while he was thinking more about survival than the 49ers.
“My urgency was pretty high as soon as I got here,” Bakhtiari said. “These guys say, ‘Oh, (it’s) preseason,’ but for me it was guns blazing. I’m trying to learn the plays, I’m trying to win a spot, I’m trying to win a starting job.
“I was going out there and trying to compete at a very high level. So, that’s going to just continue, and hopefully I can grow as a player.”
The best news for McCarthy was that Bakhtiari and Sitton did not miss a single practice all camp. They worked together every single day. Sitton did not have to adjust to a revolving door of left tackles and was able to put in valuable capital with the guy he’ll be playing next to on Sunday.
“I think Dave has earned a lot of experience just by playing next to Josh,” Lang said. “Josh has been able to help him out as far as different technique things to do on different plays. He’s come along really fast. He doesn’t act like a rookie.
“There’s really no mistakes coming from him. He’s doing a really good job.”
Bakhtiari said the veterans have been talking to him about handling his emotions when he starts his first NFL game, at a stadium miles from where he grew up, against a team he loved.
“I wouldn’t say it’s as much pressure as it is excitement about the opportunity,” he said. “It’s just another chance for me to play football in front of a team that when I was a little kid I played (for) in the backyard. The emotions will be high come Sunday.”
As for Barclay, he has felt the 49ers experience once and it was in a do-or-die situation. Eight months later, he’d like to think he’s better equipped to handle the enormity of the event, but he knows no amount of experience can help him against the two Smiths if he isn’t playing good football.
“This will be the biggest test as far as where they rank on defense and sacks and yards,” Barclay said. “I think it will be a great test.”