The Packers got a dynamite outing from their defensive line minus B.J. Raji last week, and the task for the unit now is to survive at least one more game without him.
On Friday, Raji was ruled out for Sunday’s game in St. Louis due to an ankle injury that hasn’t sufficiently healed yet. Raji continued his rehab and practiced on a limited basis the last two days, but he will miss his second straight game.
“B.J. Raji is not ready,” Mike McCarthy said. “He was examined this morning after yesterday’s work, and the medical staff felt he would not be ready by Sunday.”
Heading to Houston to face running back Arian Foster last week, there was concern the Packers could struggle up front without Raji, but the opposite turned out to be true.
Foster, the league’s second-leading rusher coming into the game, was held to just 29 yards on 17 carries. The Texans’ lateral stretch play, the staple of their ground game, went nowhere. On top of that, defensive linemen C.J. Wilson and Jerel Worthy recorded sacks on Houston’s first two offensive series.
“I thought our defensive line set the tempo for our whole defense, particularly against a scheme that was different in Houston,” McCarthy said. “The challenge will be totally different his week in St. Louis, but I thought our defensive line was outstanding in Houston and we’re going to need that type of performance again this week.”
On the ground, the Rams will come at the Packers not only with a mix of schemes but a mix of backs. Steven Jackson and rookie Daryl Richardson will handle outside zone runs as well as inside power plays on which they try to get “downhill” quickly.
The performance against Foster bodes well for the Packers up front, but that doesn’t make this week any easier. Jackson and Richardson have combined for more than 100 rushing yards in three games this season.
“It helps with the confidence, but you always want a player like B.J.,” said Ryan Pickett, who moves to nose tackle full-time in Raji’s absence. “He’s special. There’s not many guys in the league that can do what he does.
“But people (in the front office) did a good job of bringing in some young boys that can play. Mike Daniels and Jerel can play, and then C.J., and Mike Neal is having a good year. So we feel like we have a good group, collectively.”
The Packers’ depth on defense will be tested at all levels on Sunday. Outside linebacker Nick Perry (knee) and cornerback Sam Shields (shin/ankle) also have been ruled out, while inside linebacker D.J. Smith (knee) was put on injured reserve earlier this week.
There’s been no official announcement made regarding Smith’s replacement, but fourth-year pro Brad Jones was the first to step in for him when he went down last week. Shields’ spot will likely be filled by Casey Hayward, who has three interceptions in the last two games, with Davon House possibly being active for the first time this season for nickel and/or dime roles. McCarthy said Thursday’s practice was House’s best of the season.
Perry’s injury means a starting job and more snaps for Erik Walden, who had been sharing time with Perry all season. Walden has just 19 tackles and a half sack so far, but the consensus amongst his coaches and teammates is that his game continues to improve.
McCarthy pointed to the fact that Walden finally got to go through a full offseason program for the first time this past spring as beneficial to the five-year veteran. He was acquired by the Packers at midseason in 2010 and then went through the lockout the following offseason.
“He’s very comfortable in our scheme,” McCarthy said. “You just love the way he plays, physical. He brings an attitude you can’t have enough of on your football team, and I think he’s clearly playing better this year than he was last year.”
So is the defense as a whole, despite all the lineup shuffling.
“We have good depth on this team,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I don’t know if you can call them backups or anything because guys are always interchanging. We don’t really start 11 guys.
“You never like to see players go down, but it’s a great opportunity for young guys, guys in reserve roles, to step up and show what they’re made of.” Additional coverage - Oct. 19