So far, despite the season-ending injured reserve list now including three starters (Nick Barnett, Brad Jones and Morgan Burnett) and four key reserves (Justin Harrell, Mike Neal, Brady Poppinga and Derrick Martin), while other starters and key contributors have missed games here and there (Clay Matthews, Brandon Chillar, Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins), the unit as a whole has held up admirably, ranking in the middle of the pack in the league in yards allowed (18th) and, more importantly, in the upper half in points allowed (12th).
Those rankings, and the team’s 4-3 record, would look a whole lot worse had the reserves called on to fill the holes in the lineup not been able to come in and make steady contributions. Here’s a rundown of how some of those players have fared and what their outlook is for the near future on this defense:
As he did back in 2008, Bishop has stepped in for Barnett, but unlike two years ago, he’s holding onto the job this time with more consistent, impactful play.
In starting the last three games, Bishop has posted 40 tackles and a sack, and he ran back a Brett Favre interception for a touchdown for what proved to be the winning points last Sunday vs. Minnesota.
Not by his choice, Bishop has had to wait his turn to play a more significant role on defense since coming in as a sixth-round draft pick in 2007, and it appears his time, as well as his play, has arrived.
“I always have liked Desmond,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s been in a situation where we’ve had a number of good players at the linebacker position. I think he’s really taking advantage of his opportunities, and that’s what this game is all about. The opportunity opened up for him and obviously he’s played well.
“He had the big play, which was significant in the game Sunday night, and I think those are the things he’s capable of. We’ve always known he’s a pretty good blitzer, good quickness, tough guy. I like where he is right now.”
Before Capers’ arrival last year, no one was quite sure where Bishop was because his play was so up and down. In 2008, he took over when Barnett went down with a knee injury in Minnesota and immediately allowed a short swing pass to running back Chester Taylor to turn into a 47-yard touchdown. But then later in the game, he stuffed and stripped running back Adrian Peterson on a fourth-down play.
Then four weeks later, making his first career start vs. Houston, Bishop was all over the field with 12 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, but with the game tied late in the fourth quarter he blew the coverage on tight end Owen Daniels, and a big gain set up the Texans’ game-winning field goal.
Bishop says the difference now is simply the playing experience, which allows him to see what’s coming before it happens. He’s been clamoring for more experience all along, but he had to show he could be trusted with it, and it appears he can now.
“I think (I’m) being smarter from the aspect of being able to anticipate a little bit more, and trying to understand how offenses run,” Bishop said. “All the concepts are pretty similar, so you can learn to anticipate, and it helps you to play faster.
“When you get your opportunity, you’ve got to jump on it. You’ve got to embrace it. I feel like that’s what I’m doing. I’ve still got a long ways to go, but I’m just going to keep grinding.”
Peprah has started the last three games for Burnett and, like Bishop, is playing more consistently and with greater impact each successive week. It’s possible Peprah will be replaced in the starting lineup soon once former starter Atari Bigby (ankle) is activated from the PUP list, but so far Peprah hasn’t forced anyone to rush to make that move. And it’s not a given Peprah steps aside when that time comes, either.
In his first start at Washington in Week 5, Peprah showed his physical presence as a tackler, bringing down receiver Santana Moss short of the first down after a third-down pass and also stopping running back Ryan Torain a couple of times from having bigger gains. But he also allowed two deep passes to get over his head, one to Moss that set up a field goal and another to Anthony Armstrong for a 48-yard TD.
The following week, he posted a career-high 11 tackles and was credited with the initial hit on a fourth-down stop of running back Ronnie Brown. Then last Sunday vs. Minnesota, he buried receiver Percy Harvin for a 3-yard loss on a screen pass to force a punt, and late in the game he broke up a third-down pass to Harvin that gave the Packers a chance to win the game with just under two minutes left (the Vikings converted on fourth down to keep the drive alive).
“He made some crucial plays for us in that game,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “Charlie would be the first to tell you in the three starts he’s had, there’s a couple plays here and there that he’d like to have back. No one plays the perfect game. But as a whole, he’s been giving winning performances.
“Charlie is playing good, solid football for us, communicating and just running the defense.”
It looked as though Peprah might end up the goat against the Vikings when he appeared to take a bad angle on a pass to Harvin in the back of the end zone in the final minute, and Harvin came down with it. But not only was Harvin ruled out of bounds on the replay review, Perry said that wasn’t even Peprah’s assignment based on the coverage call, he just happened to get there anyway.
“That really wasn’t his play, and to get what we got out of him in that situation was pretty good,” Perry said. “His toughness is something you respect and appreciate, and he’s highly intelligent. You get that combination, you can succeed in this league, despite not being the biggest and the fastest.
“When you can understand your role and play good technique, you give yourself a chance, and that’s what he’s done for us up to this point is given us a chance to go out there and play well enough on defense to win ballgames.”
Zombo’s playing time has come in spurts based on the injury situation at outside linebacker, the matchups against certain opponents, and the quality of his play. But now with Jones and Poppinga both out for the season, he’s in line to start and play a lot on a regular basis – hardly the position a non-drafted rookie free agent from Central Michigan could have envisioned when he was just fighting to make the team in training camp.
“This is an opportunity for him to step up and show us what he’s capable of doing,” Capers said. “Zombo kind of came out of nowhere and was productive when we put him on the field. He’s had productive times. He just has to go out now and do it consistently because we’re counting on him.”
Zombo notched his first two NFL sacks in his first three games and has played a fair amount in every contest, as part of a rotation at the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews. But now, with the only options behind him being former practice-squad member Robert Francois and newcomers Diyral Briggs and Erik Walden, he’s not so much a part of a rotation as a guy who will be asked to hold his ground for four quarters, particularly as defenses run away from and/or slant protections toward Matthews on the other side.
“I feel well-prepared,” Zombo said. “Obviously you don’t want to get hurt whether you’ve got 50 guys behind you or no one behind you. But I feel well-conditioned. I think I played most of the reps in the Chicago game, so I’m used to playing a whole game.”
C.J. WILSON & JARIUS WYNN
When Jenkins strained his calf in warm-ups prior to the Vikings game and Pickett tweaked his already injured ankle in the first quarter, it could have spelled disaster for the defensive line against Minnesota’s Peterson.
But to their credit, Wilson and Wynn – late-round draft picks each of the last two years – stepped in and helped the defense compete until winning the game in the final moments. Peterson did end up with 131 yards and the Vikings rushed for 196 in all, but there were no back-breaking runs and both young linemen had a presence down the stretch.
Wilson was in on back-to-back tackles of Peterson for 2 and 1 yards on Minnesota’s final drive, while Wynn got his first career sack on that drive as well.
With Jenkins and Pickett both questionable for Sunday’s game against the Jets, Wilson and Wynn again could be called upon to play a major role against New York’s productive running-back tandem of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. One reinforcement has been added up front in nose tackle Howard Green, but last week showed that the Packers can count on Wilson and Wynn to hang in there.
“I think you always feel more comfortable after you’ve seen players go out and play a game on the field,” Capers said. “I’d be lying if I said when we were down to three linemen early in the game last week that you’re real comfortable with that. But I saw them grow a little bit as the game went on and I saw them make plays toward the end that you want to see guys make.”
Additional coverage – Oct. 29