Back in Week 7 against Minnesota, Jenkins re-aggravated his troublesome calf muscle during pre-game warm-ups and suddenly was out for the game. The gameday inactives already had been turned in, so there were no personnel changes allowed. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the rest of the defense simply adjusted on the fly as best they could.
“That last time was a unique experience you must say, to where you were doing a lot of scratching on the game plan in between pre-game warm-up and when the game started,” said Capers, who pointed out that was the only game this season the Packers’ defense has given up three touchdowns. “I hope we don’t have to go through that again. It always helps if you have a little time to plan for it.”
That, if anything, is the good news with regards to Jenkins’ absence for Sunday’s game in Detroit. He hurt the calf muscle again in the fourth quarter last Sunday against San Francisco, and it’s been known all week he isn’t playing.
That has at least afforded Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac three practices to get the defense ready without Jenkins, as veteran Howard Green, rookie C.J. Wilson and second-year pro Jarius Wynn can all expect to be more involved in the defensive line rotation against the Lions at Ford Field.
“Would we love to have Cullen out there? Absolutely,” veteran starter Ryan Pickett said. “It’s going to make us a better team with him out there, but he’s not. So the guys here, we know we have to pick up the load for the plays he’ll be making, and he makes a lot of plays. Somebody has to step up and do it. We’re counting on the older players and the younger boys to step up.”
The simplest way to replace Jenkins, probably the Packers’ most versatile lineman, would be to play to the strengths of the other three. Use the mammoth 340-pound Green on run downs and the more nimble 290-pound Wilson and Wynn as pass rushers.
But of course it isn’t that simple, at least not in the base defense when three linemen are used. Because with 330-plus run-stuffers like nose tackle B.J. Raji and Pickett as the other two linemen, using Green too much is going to compromise the pass rush and perhaps make the Packers vulnerable to play-action. At the same time, simply pairing Wilson or Wynn with the other two could make either young, smaller lineman a target for Detroit’s run game.
“It will depend on how the game is going a little bit, the run-pass ratio,” Capers said of how he’ll use his different combinations. “If they’d tell me when they’re going to run the ball, I’d stick those three big guys in. If they tell me they’re going to throw it, I’d pull two of them out and put those other two young guys in.”
It’s a little different in the nickel alignment when only two down linemen are on the field, and in those situations Capers will have plenty of options and combinations. But in either case, Jenkins made the chess match easier to play because he could reliably do whatever was required – hold the point against the run or pressure the quarterback (he had three sacks over his last two games to reach a career high of seven).
Clearly, it will take a collective effort to replace Jenkins, and if he’s out for any extended period over this last month, the young duo of Wilson and Wynn will be forced to grow up faster than ever.
Wilson, a seventh-round draft choice out of East Carolina, has been involved in the rotation for the last several weeks, mainly on third downs. He got his first NFL sack back in Week 9, bringing down Dallas quarterback Jon Kitna on the final play of the game.
“What’s interesting about C.J. is you’d see him improve as the game went on,” Capers said. “He’d do things better in the third and fourth quarter than he did in the first and second quarter. But I think you see that with a lot of young guys. He’d kind of get a feel for things, and you’ll see him at times do things just exactly the way you want them done.
“I think he’s got a good future, it’s just a matter of him going out there, and the number of plays he gets, being able to them consistently right from the start.”
Wilson believes he’s much more ready for a potentially increased role now than he was before, as the combination of practice time, game experience, and improved knowledge of the defense has helped him feel more comfortable at this level.
“Five or six weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep Saturday night before the game, worrying about my calls, if I’ve got the calls right, and seeing my steps in my head,” he said. “Now that I’ve played and got some experience, I still get butterflies, but … what it boils down to is I feel more confident in myself.
“I’ve still got a long ways to go. I’m not content at all with where I’m at. I just have to keep working harder.”
That has been Wynn’s approach too, though he admittedly needed some encouragement. As the coaching staff decided weekly whether he or Wilson would be active (or “up”) on gameday, he has lost out and found himself on the inactive list (or “down”) each of the last four games despite an important fourth-quarter sack of Brett Favre back in Week 7 against the Vikings.
“I approach every game like I’m going to be up,” Wynn said. “But being down for so long, you start to think things are wrong.”
That wasn’t the case, however. Capers and Trgovac both said there was legitimate discussion each week for the past month which player to activate because Wynn had been performing so well in practice, starting to display more of the natural pass-rushing ability the Packers saw when they drafted him in the sixth round out of Georgia in 2009.
Trgovac did his best to make sure Wynn didn’t go in the tank, explaining that the practice film showed an improved player, even if he wasn’t getting in the games.
“With Jarius, the light has gone on for him,” Trgovac said. “I’ve had several conversations with him. ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’
“We didn’t want to lose Cullen, and unfortunately it happened. I told (Wynn) last Sunday before the San Francisco game, ‘I know you’re de-active again and I know you’re looking sad right now.’ But I said, ‘You’re going to get another chance. Just make sure you keep yourself ready.’ The chance came true this week for him.”
That chance is nothing new, as the Packers’ defensive line depth has been tested regularly this year. But between Jenkins’ pre-game injury seven weeks ago and some of Pickett’s early in-game exits due to ankle problems, as often as not the opportunities have cropped up on the spur of the moment.
This time, there’s been a whole week to prepare to seize that moment. Now it’s up to them.
“They’ve had this opportunity before,” Trgovac said. “Cullen’s been out of some games, ‘Pick’ has been out of some games. You didn’t like it when it happened way back when, but it’s a blessing now because they’ve got some playing time behind them.
“I thought they had an excellent week of practice. Now they just have to do it in the game, so we’ll see on Sunday.”
Additional coverage – Dec. 10