Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, left, intercepts a pass intended for St. Louis Rams tight end Mike McNeill during the third quarter of a preseason game on Saturday night in St. Louis. / Seth Perlman/AP
ST. LOUIS — Johnny Jolly came into the Green Bay Packers’ training camp with one, seemingly long, shot at revitalizing his NFL career.
Three weeks into training camp, the 30-year-old defensive lineman has done nothing but help his journey to personal and professional redemption after spending three years out of the league after several arrests for codeine possession.
The comeback continued during the Packers’ 19-7 preseason win over the St. Louis Rams on Saturday night, when Jolly showed the intangibles of the playmaker that once earned hime a first-round restricted tender offer before a final codeine-related offense landed him in prison and out of the NFL.
A week after seeing 23 defensive snaps in the preseason opener against Arizona, Jolly drew plenty of attention to himself for the right reasons against the Rams, beginning with batting up a Kellen Clemens pass for a Jarrett Bush interception to start the second half.
The Packers forced the Rams to punt on the following possession, but a fumble caused by rookie cornerback Brandon Smith backing into the ball on the return gave St. Louis the ball back at Green Bay’s 10-yard line.
Three plays later, rookie cornerback Loyce Means tipped another Clemens pass, allowing it to fall directly into Jolly’s lap on third-and-goal from the 5 for the interception, which he returned for eight yards.
Afterward, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said people are "starting to see the player that was here a few years back."
Jolly’s teammates agree.
“It’s amazing how no matter how long you’ve been gone – sometimes you lose the technical part of it, but your instincts never go it seems like,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “That’s what I’m impressed with Johnny is that I thought it would be a while until he caught up with the technique, but he’s still very instinctive and seems to have a nose for the ball.”
There have been questions about Jolly’s conditioning and ability after sitting out three seasons — his listed weight of 325 likely is about 340 — but he still hasn’t lost his knack for making plays.
It’s helping his case on a defensive line chock full of returning players and draft picks like first-round selection Datone Jones and fifth-rounder Josh Boyd.
The Packers’ decision to incorporate fourth-year veteran Mike Neal into its outside linebacker group could free up an additional spot when the Packers make their cuts in two weeks, but Jolly’s ability to make plays is a plus.
If nothing else, the conversation just got a whole lot more interesting.
“We knew that he was capable of playing, it was just getting back into rhythm,” Bush said. “Just getting back on the bike, once he got back on the bike and started pedaling again, I felt like he’d get back into it really quick, really easy even though he took a couple years off.”
Although Jolly won’t address where he ranks in the pecking order on the defensive line, his play serves as an indication that there’s still something left in the tank even as one of the five oldest players on the roster and after his long layover.
At the very least, the Johnny Jolly that came into camp as long shot exited the Edward Jones Domes on Saturday night a few notches closer to where he wants to be — back in an NFL locker room on a permanent basis.
“That’s not my choice to make. I’m going to let the coaches do that,” said Jolly, who finished with two tackles and two pass deflections to go along with his first interception since the 2009 season.
“I’m just going to keep continuing to come out and play. As of now, I’m just one of 90 and just have to keep pushing doing what they asked me to do.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.