Can leaner Packers defense stop run?

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

GREEN BAY—The success or failure of the Green Bay Packers on defense this season largely will depend on how they stop the run, something the team hasn’t done extremely well since 2009 and generally has been average to poor ever since.

The early returns on the downsizing of the defensive line have been positive, for the most part. Wide bodies Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson are gone, but their smaller replacements have been holding up.

On Saturday, the St. Louis Rams mustered only 6 yards on six carries when their starters were matched against the Packers’ starters.

“They’re very stout up front,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “It was a little frustrating at times just because of the penetration. There was so much penetration.”

St. Louis had a 100-yard rusher in five of the last nine games last season. Top returning rushers Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham didn’t have much luck against the Packers, but part of the problem was the absence of left tackle Jake Long (knee) and right guard Rodger Saffold (unknown).

Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones were on top of their games in two-series stints. Hawk was attacking, not catching.

Having the bulk of Julius Peppers (6-foot-6, 285 pounds) at outside linebacker rather than Nick Perry, Mike Neal, Andy Mulumba or Nate Palmer, who all played the position last year, also has been noticeable against the run.

Throughout three weeks of practice and two exhibition games, the defensive line in the 3-4 base has featured Datone Jones at left end, B.J. Raji at nose tackle and Mike Daniels at right end.

Compared to the departed behemoths, Jones (6-4, 285) is light and Daniels (6-0, 303) is short.

Starting with opening night Sept. 4 against Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks, the Packers will begin finding out if their new front three can hold the fort.

Daniels is the club’s premier defensive lineman. Strong and quick, determined and domineering, he might be as indispensable as anyone on defense.

Had this been five years ago, or before Roger Goodell made it almost a cardinal sin to breathe on quarterbacks, Daniels probably would have had three knockdowns of Sam Bradford in his 19 snaps. As it was, Daniels beat backup Mike Person but then pulled up to avoid a fine.

Tackle-guard Greg Robinson (6-5, 332), the second pick in the 2014 draft, moved Daniels three times on running plays. However, Daniels shed Robinson and tackled Stacy for a loss before disengaging from center Scott Wells and assisting on another tackle.

Based on what we’ve seen, the expectation is that Daniels will be less vulnerable to the run than Jones.

Jones has made gains restructuring his body. He is strong, and he does play hard. He is also confident in his run-stop ability.

Through 44 snaps, however, Jones basically hasn’t made a play. He has been OK at the point of attack.

“I’m a defensive end, not a D-tackle,” Jones said last week. “I’ll put my height and weight up against any defensive end. You didn’t see me on the ground one time (against Tennessee). Not one time.”

If the Packers need more ballast, Josh Boyd (6-2, 309) clearly is a better option than rookie Khyri Thornton (6-2, 308).

Although they are almost mirror images of one another on the hoof, Boyd is more explosive, combative and aware. He’s quicker off the ball, more of a pass-rush threat and has shown the capability of playing across the line of scrimmage.

It wasn’t until the Rams inserted their No. 3 offense that Thornton made his first play or two of the exhibition season. A third-round pick, he is basically occupying space as he learns the ropes.

The Packers viewed former Viking Letroy Guion (6-3, 315) not only as Raji’s backup but also as a rotational player at end. But unless he is back this week from a lost month because of a bad hamstring, the Packers probably can’t count on him in Seattle.

If Thornton has been a disappointment for the run defense, rookie Mike Pennel (6-4, 331) has been a pleasant surprise. For the second straight game he was in the opponent’s backfield, including on a sack that was set up by Mike Neal.

Of course he was working against backups, but Pennel still had six positive grades in 19 snaps in St. Louis. He’s massive, moves well and keeps beating people. Most 3-4 teams would want someone like that.

As for Raji, talent has never been the issue. Little can be gleaned from his two-game, 23-snap exposure. He’ll have to turn it up.

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