Chad Wheeler was starting just his third game for the Giants last December when he was given the task of trying to stop Khalil Mack in Oakland.
Forced into action because of injuries on the offensive line, the undrafted rookie out of Southern Cal, not surprisingly, wasn’t able to stop one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers. Wheeler allowed Mack to sack Geno Smith and force a fumble in the Giants’ first game with Eli Manning on the bench.
On Sunday, just about a year since their previous matchup, Wheeler gets another chance against Mack, who is now leading a powerful Bears defense following his stunning trade from Oakland before the season.
And this time, Wheeler said he feels more comfortable in the position — and the Giants will no doubt look at this as another test for the second-year right tackle who took over for the since-released Ereck Flowers.
“It’s a challenge,’’ Wheeler said Wednesday. “Khalil Mack is a good player. Obviously, you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game.”
He’s planning on watching more film from last year’s game, when Mack lined up almost exclusively against Wheeler. This time around, with Mack moving from side-to-side more in Chicago’s defense — which is ranked fourth overall in the NFL — both Wheeler and Nate Solder figure to have to deal with the All-Pro.
Pat Shurmur said he is hopeful Wheeler and the rest of the line is up to the task.
“I think he’s developed throughout the season and gotten better each week,’’ the head coach said. “He’s with that group of guys that have played their best three games in the last three weeks, against some really good opponents. Let’s not forget the [defensive] line we just faced [in Philadelphia] was another tough … challenge to block. I thought he hung in there well and played pretty well for the most part.”
The Eagles, though, don’t have a threat like Mack, who rookie running back Saquon Barkley called “probably the best defensive player in the league.”
“The Bears defense obviously has good players and Mack stands out,’’ Eli Manning said. “You’ve got to have a plan to keep him from taking over.’’
Manning compared Mack’s disruptiveness to Demarcus Ware and Terrell Suggs.
The last time Wheeler was put in a spot like this came in a Week 3 win over the Texans. The Giants won the game — their first of the year — but Watt torched Wheeler and the offensive line for three sacks.
He believes he is in a better spot later in the season.
“Obviously you gain some confidence [during the season], but it would be better if we won some games to go along with it,’’ Wheeler said.
There haven’t been many of those this season for the Giants, which is why the focus can already be shifted to the future.
“I think he’s developed well throughout the year,’’ Shurmur said. “He’s really benefited from all the reps and playing time he’s gotten.”
The test continues Sunday against Mack, who Wheeler called “relentless.”
“He has an internal drive that’s sometimes unmatched,’’ Wheeler said. “So you’ve got to bring it.”
Solder, on the other side of the line, said he liked what he’s seen from Wheeler, but the real exam will come Sunday.
“He studies and does the things he needs to do,” Solder said. “Then you need to perform.”