Against the run, the down linemen are usually asked to occupy as many blockers as possible to allow the linebackers to fill the holes. Against the pass, they’re often rushing from an inside position, more likely to collapse the pocket than find an unclogged lane to the quarterback.
It’s unselfish duty, which makes it all the more gratifying for the defensive linemen to have a game like they did on Sunday.
All four of the main big men in the rotation up front – Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and rookie Mike Neal – got themselves a tally in a high-impact stat column, as Jenkins and Raji each recorded a sack of Lions quarterback Shaun Hill, while Pickett recovered a fumble that Neal forced with an athletic play against Detroit running back Jahvid Best.
“That’s what they live for,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said of seeing those plays in the weekly Monday film review. “Deep down inside they’d like to do that every down.”
Trgovac would love to see it. As their position coach, he admits he’s “never satisfied” with their production, but he applauds his group for the hard work it puts in. The 2010 season is only four games old, but in the second year of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme the down linemen seem to be finding ways to make more plays.
Jenkins has four sacks – a consistent one in each game – while Raji has two. That total of six from the unit has almost matched the 6½ the linemen posted last season. With one forced fumble and recovery, the group also is on pace to match or surpass last year’s totals in those categories (four forced, two recoveries).
Last year’s group also had two interceptions and 14 batted passes, which will be tough totals to match, but there’s still time.
It’s the sack number that stands out the most, though, as the half-dozen from the linemen are a key reason the Packers are tied for the league lead with 16 in all.
Jenkins’ one sack in each game is a career-long streak, and he’s potentially missed a couple of other sacks because of the bulky club cast on his broken hand. One was early in the Detroit game, when he whipped past his man at the line of scrimmage but as Hill stepped up in the pocket, Jenkins could only reach out with the club and couldn’t grab hold of anything.
But Jenkins is benefiting from the way Capers is mixing things up on the rush. During training camp, Capers started experimenting with moving outside linebacker Clay Matthews to the other side of the field, opposite Jenkins, so offenses couldn’t slant their protection schemes one way to take care of the team’s top two rushers. Jenkins also has gotten to rush from out on the edge in some nickel packages with the linebackers coming up the middle.
As a result, Jenkins is just a half sack from his total last year, and 2½ shy of his career high, set in 2006 in the old 4-3 alignment. One more sack this Sunday in Washington and he'll become the first Packers player to record a sack in five straight contests since a young Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (2000-01).
“He gives us some good pressure, which Cullen always does,” Capers said. “I’ll be glad to see when that club comes off his hand.”
The coaches were also glad to see Neal finally make his debut. He missed the first three games when he strained some muscles near his rib cage in practice leading up to the season opener.
With the rookie second-round draft pick slotted as the No. 4 lineman coming out of camp, the workload for the other three shot up dramatically when the No. 5 guy, Justin Harrell, was lost for the season to a knee injury in Week 1 at Philadelphia.
Having a productive Neal in the rotation will do wonders to keep snap counts down and help the linemen stay fresh throughout a game.
“Mike is a combination of the other guys,” Trgovac said. “He’s a guy that’s got enough power to be a good run player and he’s got enough quickness to be a good pass rusher. It gives you the flexibility to do both with him, and you’re not worried about certain things when he’s in the game. He played 26 snaps (against the Lions) and we’re hoping to increase that next week.”
It could increase considerably if he keeps making more plays like the one against Best. The game was tied 7-7 in the second quarter at the time, and Neal’s strip, followed by Pickett’s recovery and a personal foul on the Lions put the ball on the Detroit 12-yard line, setting up an easy score for a lead the Packers wouldn’t relinquish.
“I like the fact that Mike Neal came in and made an impact play,” Trgovac said. “That kind of put the game in a different light right there.
“He’s very quick and he was on an inside slant move there. He beat the guy to the inside and was able to re-direct enough and reached for the ball. ‘Pick’ was in great position, the ball fell right in front of him, and did a good job of landing on it, securing it and not letting anybody in that pile take it from him.”
Pickett and Raji remain probably the two stoutest run defenders in the group, and Trgovac complimented them both for remaining “accountable in their gap” against the run consistently, play after play.
Meanwhile, Raji’s two sacks already have topped the one from his rookie season last year. Both have been for 9-yard losses, one against Philadelphia’s Kevin Kolb in the opener and the other of Detroit’s Hill on the defense’s first snap last Sunday, and Capers believes that’s not the last time Raji will be in the opposing backfield.
“I think B.J. has improved his pass rush,” Capers said. “You saw it on the very first play. That wasn’t designed with him jetting up the field. He had the guard on him, made an arm-over move on the guard and went and got the sack on the play.”
The linemen would love to keep piling up the sacks, but they know they can’t try to at the expense of their other responsibilities or the 3-4 won’t function right. The sacks and other big plays aren’t the only things that earn them appreciation from their defensive mates, but if they’re able to find the spotlight once in a while, they’ll take it.
“They’re an unselfish group and understand they do some things that set other people up,” Trgovac said. “Obviously when it’s a team sack or something like that, they’re happy with it. I’m sure they’d be happier if it was theirs, but that’s just human nature. But they’re an unselfish group, and we need them to stay that way.”