With Johnny Jolly’s comeback season likely over, the Green Bay Packers are now left with a 6-foot-3, 328-pound hole to fill on their defensive line.
The 30-year-old veteran has been ruled out for Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh and is believed to be done for the season after suffering a significant neck injury in Sunday’s 37-36 win over Dallas.
Jolly won’t be easy to replace, especially after having arguably his best game two weeks ago against Atlanta since returning from a three-year suspension for violating NFL policy on substance abuse.
Now, the onus falls on rookie Josh Boyd, veteran C.J. Wilson and the rest of the Packers defensive linemen to assume Jolly’s role in the 3-4 base defense – a unit that had been among the league’s top run-stopping units through the first two months of the season.
“It’s very important,” said Wilson of filling Jolly’s void. “We knew that coming into the season. We kept an extra d-lineman for the rotational purposes if someone goes down we can have other guys step up. I know that Josh being a young guy, but if you look at how he plays, he’ll be a great player.
“We have a great team and I don’t think it’s going to be a drop-off.”
The Packers’ run defense has fallen from third to 25th in the league over the last two months, but faces even more treacherous waters without Jolly.
Ideally, Wilson would be the top candidate to step in for Jolly. He was a starter in the base defense during Jolly’s three year absence, but is questionable to play against the Steelers because of a high-ankle sprain that’s sidelined him for the past three games.
More recently, the Packers have started rotating in Boyd, a fifth-round pick out of Mississippi State who was inactive for the first nine weeks of the season. He saw a season-high 39 snaps against the Cowboys and produced three tackles, two hurries and two stops, according to Pro Football Focus.
At 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, Boyd has dual-threat potential as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher. Prior to Jolly’s injury, he’d also started taking snaps away from first-round pick Datone Jones in the dime defensive sub-package.
“From midseason on, Josh has done a great job of progressing each week, detailing his work more and more each week,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “I think you can see he possesses the ability to defeat and blocker and burst off a block and go make a play. He has a chance to be a very good player. It’s just how far he wants to take his game.”
If the Packers decide to place Jolly on injured reserve, it seems unlikely they’d add another defensive linemen to the roster with second-year pro Jerel Worthy being a healthy scratch for the past there weeks.
It also would end an unlikely career and personal resurgence for Jolly, who was reinstated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in February. The Packers strongly considered waiving Jolly’s rights, but decided to give him a chance in training camp.
Despite being a long-shot to make the team, Jolly wound up starting the season-opener against San Francisco and has 21 tackles, a sack and one pass deflection in 13 games this season.
“I don’t know what’s been said or what they tell you but Johnny means a lot to us not only as a good football player,” Trgovac said. “One of the things that amazed me about Johnny is when I had him here in 2009 I thought he was one of the most instinctive players that I’ve ever had and then he was out of football for 10, 11, 12 and then the first or second practice, he came out there and I watched him and he still hasn’t lost his instincts.He’s very instinctive that way.
“It’s something that the media was asking me, do you think he can do it? I said I don’t know, we’ll have to see because this has never happened to me before as a coach. Johnny’s instincts, those are hard to replace.”
-firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.