3 Green Bay Packers backups shine vs. Kansas City Chiefs

Sep. 2, 2011

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Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Terrance Copper pulls down a pass in front of Green Bay Packers safety Charlie Peprah and linebacker Jamari Lattimore, for a first down on a fake punt in the first quarter of Thursday's preseason game at Lambeau Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette


Everybody was talking about undrafted outside linebacker Vic So’oto after the Packers’ preseason finale Thursday night, and why not? He made some great plays.

But there were three backups people haven’t talked much about this camp who played well and provide nice depth: defensive end Jarius Wynn, safety Charlie Peprah and rookie linebacker D.J. Smith.

Wynn, a third-year pro, has quietly had a pretty decent camp. He has some ability to get up field and uses his hands well. Last year he looked out of sorts at times, but he’s found himself with another year in the system, and it looks like he’ll be a productive rotation player on the defensive line.

The Packers will play him, because three of those six defensive linemen are big guys — B.J. Raji (337 pounds), Ryan Pickett (340 pounds) and Howard Green (340 pounds) — and Wynn at 285 pounds provides something they don’t, quickness on the line of scrimmage. Not sure he’s always assignment sure, but he has lateral speed and can get in the backfield. That’s half the game.

Peprah, the No. 3 safety, has become a forgotten man because second-year pro Morgan Burnett took his place in the starting lineup. Burnett is bigger (6-1 and 209 to Peprah’s 5-11 and 203), faster and better in coverage. But the Packers have to feel good about having Peprah on their bench. Physical guy.

In the first quarter Thursday night against Kansas City, Peprah made a play where he blew up the blocker on a wide receiver screen and was in on the tackle. He gets blocked and the play extends the drive.

Smith, a sixth-round draft pick, has improved in camp and on Thursday night showed he might be as good an inside blitzer as the Packers have. One of the reasons he’s able to slice through the line is that he’s a small target. When he gets those shoulders down or gets skinny, it’s tough to hit him. If A.J. Hawk or Desmond Bishop gets injured or needs some rest, Smith looks good enough to fill in. He’s explosive and attacks the ball.

So'oto great, and not

So’oto had a pretty darn good game (1½ sacks, a forced fumble, a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown) but it’s worth nothing that for as many good plays as he had, he had some stinkers, too.

Occasionally against the run, he turns his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, which allows the running back to get outside him. Not real bad, but he has to stay square and not give up the edge.

The first week of camp, he was a guy you eyeball cut right away, but something clicked with him. He’s a big, strong guy who uses his hands well.

As his career goes on — it looks like he will have a career in the NFL — he’ll probably have to drop a few from his current 263 pounds so he’s quicker in pass coverage. He can run with right ends, but he has to work on his trailing technique and get his hands on the guys on the line of scrimmage so he can direct them where he wants them to go rather than them directing him.

Straight-line speed is one thing, but having quick feet and adjusting directionally is a different story. He’s still a little tight in the hips, there’s no arguing that. Is he serviceable? Yeah, he can play. It will be interesting to see what happens when teams see tape of him, if they attack him with tight ends and running backs. Maybe the Packers won’t have him cover much, just have him play downhill most of the time.

Kind of doubt So’oto will play much except on special teams unless there are some injuries, but he has upside. If he can improve in coverage and always be square around the line of scrimmage, he could be good.

McDonald struggled

Nick McDonald was the backup center coming into camp but might have played himself off the team.

Evan Dietrich-Smith, another backup center-guard, doesn’t jump off the screen with his athleticism, and he’s not going to block safeties or maybe even linebackers. But he doesn’t screw up. McDonald gets overpowered sometimes. You don’t see that with Dietrich-Smith. McDonald hasn’t been as physical as you want, and on Thursday night he shotgun-snapped the ball over quarterback Matt Flynn. That’s not going to help you.

The Packers flip-flopped McDonald and Dietrich-Smith at guard and center every other series, and at guard McDonald got run over and fell down on a couple of running plays. He didn’t look sharp. Hard to say what they’re going to do with him.

If the Packers lose a starting guard or center, they’ll be hurting. They can get by at tackle for a game or two with backup Marshall Newhouse. First-round pick Derek Sherrod isn’t ready to be the top backup at tackle. His legs are too straight and he’s not good with his hands.

Extra points

• I don’t know if they can keep Chastin West or Tori Gurley. Both young receivers could get cut because it’s hard to keep six receivers with this roster. I think another team would pick up West. Maybe the Packers roll the dice and try to get Gurley on the practice squad. You have to like his size (6-4), and he can shield defenders, but he has to use his body even better than he does. He’s not as aggressive going to the ball as he needs to be. If he was a little stronger and more aggressive, he could have had a couple of more catches Thursday night, like on the play where cornerback Brandon Flowers bumped him off the ball and intercepted a pass from Flynn. The other knock is Gurley’s not good coming off the line. He has long arms but needs strength and explosion.

• If the Packers have to go light on their roster somewhere, it might be with only three safeties instead of four because cornerback Jarrett Bush can play safety. I think Brandon Underwood, who’s going for that fourth safety spot, will get cut.

• Flynn looked solid at quarterback despite his 0.0 passer rating. He doesn’t get rattled. You don’t see him yelling at linemen when they don’t block, you don’t see him yelling at receivers for drops. Looks like he’s under control, lets the game come to him. A lot of quarterbacks can throw the ball — Jeff George had an incredible arm — but if you stay calm and let the game come to you, that’s a good quarterback.

Green Bay Press-Gazette correspondent Eric Baranczyk played football at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and later served as an assistant coach. He will provide periodic evaluations of the Packers during training camp.

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