Leaner Pennel hopes to make greater impact

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Mike Pennel thought the critiquing of his rookie NFL season would be over once the Green Bay Packers' exit interviews wrapped up in January.

Then, the 6-foot-4, 332-pound nose tackle returned home to Colorado and discovered that his mother, Terri, had jotted down a few notes of her own.

"She recorded all the games," Pennel said. "She's a worse critic than my coach. We watched through all the games and she said I have a lot of untapped potential that she hasn't seen and she's been to every game.

"I'm like, 'Well, let me just try to work on that a little bit and play a little harder.' "

Pennel was one of two undrafted rookies in 2014 to make the Packers' 53-man roster coming out of training camp. B.J. Raji's season-ending biceps injury pushed Pennel into the lineup early in the season. All of his eight tackles came between Weeks 4-7.

He trained back home this offseason with the goal of being more disruptive in his second season. He focused on his cardio and worked with a boxing coach. He still weighs about the same, but returned to Green Bay feeling faster and leaner.

Pennel wants to shed about 4 or 5 more pounds before the start of the regular season, but is off to a strong start to his sophomore campaign. He had three tackles, including one for a loss and another for no gain in Thursday night's 22-11 win over the New England Patriots.

"I dropped a little bit of weight. I lost a lot of fat," Pennel said. "Now I'm in a good place with that so I don't have to worry about jumping in the hot box right before weigh-ins. I'm at a comfortable weight where I can eat healthy, eat good. Just getting leaner and faster is really it."

The Packers could be in huge need of depth on the defensive line early this season. Defensive end Datone Jones is suspended for the opener and veteran Letroy Guion is facing a three-game suspension stemming from a February arrest in Starke, Fla.

With Guion (hamstring) and Mike Daniels (ankle) sitting out against the Patriots, Pennel started at right defensive end next to nose tackle B.J. Raji and Josh Boyd in the 3-4 base defense. The Packers primarily used Pennel as a nose tackle last season, but know he'll need to be versatile.

"Being out there, you have to be an even smarter football player than inside," Pennel said. "You have to know when double-teams are coming and where the flow of the offense is going because fundamentals and footwork are very big there. Right now, it's a learning experience for me. I'm taking it head-on. Book's open."

Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac told Pennel to hone his fundamentals and technique when the team dispersed in January. It's only one game, but Pennel feels he's forged a good basis to build from.

If he doesn't, the second-year nose tackle knows the first person he'll hear from.

"She definitely makes Trgo look nicer," Pennel joked about his mom. "She's rough. She's brutal."

Take two

You can't put a statistic on the satisfaction Rajion Neal felt walking out of Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.

His performance — four carries for 15 yards — wasn't as good as last year's preseason opener in Tennessee — five for 39 yards and a touchdown — but the running back will gladly take this year's outcome.

The former University of Tennessee standout was off to a great start to camp last summer before tearing his medial collateral ligament on a kickoff return against the Titans. He didn't play the rest of the preseason and was released after reaching an injury settlement.

"I mean it's a good feeling, man," Neal said. "Definitely just to say I was able to walk off the field after this first preseason (game). I got some good feedback from the coaches. Didn't really do much, but the little bit that was asked of me, they said I executed well and did what was coached."

To prevail in this year's competition, Neal knows he'll need to show he can add another dimension to the running game. He believes his shifty running style and catching ability out of the backfield offer a change of pace to the punishing style of Eddie Lacy and James Starks.

Neal started as a receiver with the Volunteers before moving to running back his junior year. That versatility showed Saturday when he split out wide and caught a deep over-the-shoulder pass from quarterback Matt Blanchard over the coverage of fourth-year safety Sean Richardson.

"I'm hungry," Neal said. "At the end of the day, I feel good. I'm healthy. I way more familiar with the scheme, the coaches, the players, the mindset they're in and what they're looking for, the checks, audibles. The more opportunities, the more I'm going to make of them.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to do what's coached of me, play my game and let the chips fall where they may."

Thirteen sit out

The Packers had 13 players sit out of the 11th practice of training camp on Saturday, the most since camp started a little more than two weeks ago.

Starting left tackle David Bakhtiari and defensive end Josh Boyd were among those absences due to knee injuries they sustained against the Patriots. Bakhtiari looked no worse for wear on Thursday night after taking all 33 snaps with the first-team offense.

Boyd sat out of the offseason program recovering knee surgery, but was cleared in time for training camp. Packers coach Mike McCarthy spoke before practice, so it's uncertain how severe either injury is. Both Bakhtiari and Boyd were in attendance.

The Packers were also without defensive linemen Letroy Guion (hamstring) and Mike Daniels (ankle), outside linebacker Nick Perry (groin), defensive backs Damarious Randall (groin), Tay Glover-Wright (hamstring), Demetri Goodson (calf) and Kyle Sebetic (ankle), tight end Justin Perillo (concussion), and receivers Javess Blue (shoulder), Adrian Coxson (concussion) and Jared Abbrederis (concussion).

Abbrederis hasn't practiced since dropping out early in the first practice of training camp.

"He's making progress," McCarthy said. "He's still going through the protocol. There's a number of tests you have to go through, and he hasn't completed them."

Extra points

■ Mike McCarthy wants to get as much work in as possible on two-point conversions this preseason to prepare for the NFL moving extra-point kicks back to the 33-yard line.

It doesn't matter if it's his own offense or the opponent, adding that he hopes the team's next three exhibition foes — Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Orleans — go for it every time.

The Packers unsuccessfully went for two on each of their first two touchdowns against New England before allowing Mason Crosby to kick the 33-yard extra point in the third quarter. New England converted a two-point try on an end-around after scoring its only touchdown.

"That situation needs more work," said McCarthy, whose team was 1-of-4 on two-point conversions last season (including playoffs). "You have to apply more attention to it just from the simple fact you look at it from a defensive perspective they now have an opportunity to score, so you need to practice that."

The Packers are cognizant of how important it will be to execute and defend two-point conversions with how poor the weather could potentially be in December.

"We live in Green Bay, Wisconsin; it's something you definitely look at differently early in the season as opposed to late in the year," McCarthy said. "I think that's an obvious viewpoint there. We're not going to wait until December to practice it."

Injury report

New injuries: T David Bakhtiari (knee), DL Josh Boyd (knee).

Still out: DL Letroy Guion (hamstring), DL Mike Daniels (ankle), OLB Nick Perry (groin), CB Damarious Randall (groin), CB Tay Glover-Wright (hamstring), CB Demetri Goodson (calf), DB Kyle Sebetic (ankle), TE Justin Perillo (concussion), WR Javess Blue (shoulder), WR Adrian Coxson (concussion), WR Jared Abbrederis (concussion).

Returned: LB Clay Matthews (knee), OLB Mike Neal (hernia surgery), S Sean Richardson (pectoral), T Vince Kowalski (concussion).

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