GREEN BAY – If Chicago defensive lineman Akiem Hicks is trying to engage the Green Bay offensive line in a war of words, the Packers aren’t biting.
In a conference call with Green Bay media on Wednesday, Hicks discussed his new teammate, Khalil Mack, at length, and threw this out there regarding his Packers counterparts:
“I know those five guys can’t block Khalil Mack.”
To be fair, Hicks apparently was conducting the conference call from the Bears’ training room and Mack happened to be there, well within earshot. So Hicks was probably just having fun more than anything.
But there’s no denying that the addition of Mack to an already formidable defensive front on longtime coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit changes the challenge for the Packers on short notice. That said, Green Bay’s linemen are more focused on preparing to play than listening to soundbites.
“He sounds excited to have Khalil Mack as a teammate, and he should,” said right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who will likely have to deal with Mack the most come Sunday night at Lambeau Field. “He’s a heck of a football player, and we’re going to have to account for where he is at all times. That’s the type of guy he is.
“Hicks isn’t that bad of a player, either. We have to account for him, too. We have to account for everyone on that defensive front. They’re good football players. Tongue-in-cheek, whatever, he’s having a good time, and we have to be ready to play good football on Sunday.”
Last season, Hicks led the Bears with 8½ sacks, and Leonard Floyd added 4½ more, but Mack is expected to be the bell-cow pass rusher now. He’s hit double digits in sacks each of the last three years and won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, when he had 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, three recoveries and an interception he returned for a touchdown.
The Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and paid a king’s ransom in a new contract for Mack (six years, $141 million with $90 million guaranteed), and his sudden arrival has added even more hype to the prime-time opener between the NFL’s oldest rivals to kick off the Packers’ 100th season.
“That’s a really good player in his prime,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “It just adds to the rivalry now that we get to see him a couple times a year.
“We’re focused on Coach Fangio’s defense, and they’ll plug him in accordingly. I’m not sure how much he’s going to play. I would guess they’ll get him out there as much as possible.”
Bulaga actually faced Mack during his 15-sack campaign in 2015, when the Packers traveled to Oakland. On Green Bay’s second drive of the game, Mack employed a wicked spin move for a sack – which the veteran tackle termed “an athletic-as-hell play” – but Bulaga shut him down over the final 3½ quarters, as Mack recorded just one assisted tackle after that.
While Bulaga said in preparation he’ll try to project what the Bears might ask Mack to do in their system, he’s not going to get as caught up in that as making sure he’s got his own game in order. This will be Bulaga’s first regular-season contest since tearing his ACL last November, and he played just a dozen preseason snaps, all coming in last Thursday’s finale in Kansas City.
“When you go against a guy that talented, you have to be really good with your fundamentals,” Bulaga said. “That’s kind of the approach every week, but when you’re going against especially someone that is new to a team and you don’t know how he’s going to be used, you have to really just rely on those things and try to execute.
“He has speed, power, good hands. He’s kind of the total package when it comes to defensive ends. He does everything really well, and as you can see, he got paid for it.”
Bulaga came back from an ACL injury once before, in 2014, and had one of his best seasons, so there’s no concern with him from that standpoint. He’s just getting one heck of a test right out of the gate.
He and left tackle David Bakhtiari both take a lot of pride in being left one-on-one against premier pass rushers, and they expect no different in Week 1, wherever Mack lines up. The faith the coaches and Rodgers have in Bulaga and Bakhtiari as “bookends” is ever-present, and it’s how the Packers’ offense functions best.
The Packers would love nothing better than to hit that high level right away in the opener, and success against Mack would go a long way in that regard.
“As tackles in this offense, we’ve been doing it a certain way for a long time here,” Bulaga said. “Dave’s been doing it for a long time. You just have to know what you’re being asked to do and do your job.
“We’re excited for it, prime-time football, first game of the season, 100th season, all that stuff. We just have to make sure we prepare the way we need to and be ready to rock on Sunday.”
The Packers practiced on Wednesday inside the Don Hutson Center to prepare for the regular season opener against the Bears.