The Packers finally had their projected Week 1 starting defense on the field together Monday morning, as outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Brad Jones returned from hamstring and shoulder injuries, respectively, and defensive end Cullen Jenkins was able to take the jog-through snaps before continuing to rehab his calf.
With all the injuries the Packers had on the defensive side of the ball in training camp, the true starting unit never took the field together for a preseason game over the past month. In addition to Matthews (all four games), Jones (three games) and Jenkins (two games) missing time, linebackers Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk also sat out games and cornerback Charles Woodson rested for a couple.
That led to some admittedly sub-standard play from a unit that finished No. 2 overall in yards allowed a year ago. But it appears the starting group is coming together in time for the regular-season opener in Philadelphia, with Jenkins and backup linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) hoping to be cleared for full practice duty later this week.
The coaching staff is preparing to have all hands on deck come Sunday.
“We’ll exercise a full game plan for Philadelphia,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “We will not play with any restrictions as far as volume or creativity. We trust the players that are coming back off of injury and we feel it is important to have quality preparation throughout the week and get ourselves ready to play at the level we are capable of playing.”
The key defender out the longest has been Matthews, who strained a hamstring in the Family Night Scrimmage back on Aug. 7, the same hamstring that forced him to miss time during spring workouts and training camp last year. He hadn’t participated in practice since then except for jog-throughs toward the end of camp, though the medical staff was being extra cautious with him because of the recurring nature of the injury.
But Matthews was given the all-go sign on Monday, and the team’s 2009 sack leader was testing himself as best he could.
“I thought it was a good first day coming back from three, four weeks off,” Matthews said. “Physically it felt great. Obviously mentally, that’s going to have to catch up. A little tentative at first, but it’s a natural progression and I think it’s the same progression as last year. Should be good to go 100 percent for the game.”
Jones, meanwhile, is also back but with a shoulder harness that he refers to as a “large tape job.” He and Matthews have switched sides from a year ago, with Jones now at right outside linebacker and Matthews on the left, but both players feel they’ll adjust fairly readily to the changed perspective and footwork that come with a new spot.
Of greater concern is the continuity of the entire group due to the revolving nature of player availability during the preseason. The players themselves downplayed that, pointing to the fact that they’re now in the second year of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme after a successful debut year, when the Packers led the league in run defense in addition to ranking second overall.
“I think we’re a pretty cohesive group, and I think that we play well together,” Jones said. “I think we know that. I think everybody on the defense kind of knows that. We know each other, and when we’re all out there, we’re running around communicating. You kind of know how everybody plays, and that never goes away. You always know how everybody plays. We’re still really connected to each other I feel.”
They do, however, recognize the importance of practicing together as much as they can this week, as the game plan for Philadelphia is installed. McCarthy said the team used one training camp practice to prepare for the opener, and the coaching staff’s original study of the Eagles was reviewed again last week.
Jenkins’ return, assuming he continues to progress with his rehab this week, can’t be understated either. A stout defender against the run at right end, Jenkins is also the team’s top inside pass rusher, and with Matthews switching to the left side, offenses won’t be able to simply slant their pass protection to one side to help on both Jenkins and Matthews.
They’ll be on different sides now, and without a preseason game together as a gauge, to some extent they’ll be reacting to opposing offense’s adjustments on the fly.
“As far as playing together, you’d definitely like to have more time out there playing with each other to be able to feel each other out,” Jenkins said. “But when it comes down to it, it’s still football, and we all know how to play it and we just have to go out there and do what we’re supposed to do.”
One thing the Packers have going for them as far as continuity is that only one projected starter did not play in this defense last year – rookie safety Morgan Burnett. Cornerback Al Harris' injury rehab also could force rookie Sam Shields to play the nickel, which will necessitate a learning curve for the converted receiver on passing downs.
But Burnett has been taking snaps with the No. 1 defense from the first day he arrived as a third-round draft pick, and he started all four preseason games, so he’s as far along as a rookie can be at this stage.
“I’m getting better and better each day with the communication, understanding what’s going on and understanding how I’m supposed to fit on certain plays,” Burnett said.
It all needs to jell in just a few more short days, because once the regular season starts, there are no more excuses.
“We don’t have a choice but to go out with who we got,” Woodson said. “Whoever’s in, whoever’s coming in from a backup standpoint, you gotta come in and play. There’s no time for us to sit back and think about, hey, who’s going to be in and what-not.
“They’re not going to feel sorry for us if we’re piecing guys together, so we have to go out there and perform.”
The best part is the performance will be for real now. The Packers have won their season opener each of the last three years, but this is the first time in McCarthy’s tenure they’ll be opening on the road in a hostile environment.
Having the defensive starters in uniform matters more than where they’re playing, though, and the Packers are on track to have the defense that took the field for that first training camp practice back on July 31.
“This is it -- this is what we all strive for and shoot for, is winning these games, getting to the playoffs and hopefully making a Super Bowl run,” Matthews said. “Now is when it really matters. We have to buckle down, get serious -- not that we weren’t -- but really start making less mistakes and getting after it from Week 1.”
Additional coverage - Sept. 6