Already locked in game day intensity, Mike Daniels wasn’t making any excuses for the Green Bay Packers’ defensive line Thursday afternoon.
Yes, the unit is without two of its regular players. Defensive ends Letroy Guion and Datone Jones are suspended for the Packers’ opener Sunday at the Chicago Bears. Guion won’t return until next month when the Packers travel to the San Francisco 49ers for their fourth game of the season.
Daniels took exception when a reporter notified him the Packers’ defensive line depth chart would be a little short against the Bears.
“We have five defensive linemen currently,” Daniels said. “So I don’t think we’re short. I think we have more than enough to get done what we need to get done, and that’s play good, hard football. I have complete trust in the guys that we have, or else we wouldn’t have them. They do a great job upstairs deciding who should be playing and who should be here.”
Those five guys up front include Daniels and B.J. Raji, arguably the Packers’ two best linemen. Mike Pennel, Bruce Gaston and Josh Boyd fill out the depth chart. Among them, there are only four starts and 37 games.
Pennel could get his first start Sunday if the Packers open in their base 3-4 defense. While Daniels and Raji usually are the Packers’ two defensive linemen in subpackages, Pennel replaced Guion this week atop the team’s depth chart at defensive end.
Pennel, an undrafted rookie from Colorado State University-Pueblo, played mostly at nose tackle as a rookie last season. He has the size to play on the interior (6-foot-4, 332 pounds), but defensive line coach Mike Trgovac also likes Pennel’s versatility. To get Pennel more snaps, Trgovac said, he transitioned to playing more five-technique in his second year.
“He’s a big, strong guy in there,” Trgovac said. “… We really worked hard on his fundamentals and technique. If he doesn’t do it properly, he has the size to overcome that. When he gets his fundamentals down to exactly where he should be, then he has a chance to be a really good player. That’s going to be the key, is for him to get his fundamentals down to where he should be. When you’re a big guy, you can overcome the mistake maybe a little bit easier than a little guy.”
Gaston, a second-year player from Purdue, ended last season on the Packers’ 53-man roster after being signed off the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad. He was never activated on the team’s 46-man, game day roster, but that could change Sunday.
While Pennel has been stout against the run, Gaston’s strength this preseason was rushing the passer. He led the Packers with four quarterback hits during the preseason and had one sack. Trgovac said Gaston (6-foot-2, 310 pounds) is an “unconventional” pass rusher, a changeup that can be challenging for opposing offensive linemen to handle.
“He’s a big guy,” Trgovac said, “and he’s got good movement for a big man. He’s got some oddities to his footwork and his hands — he’s really good with his hands. He just has some unconventional feet when he’s rushing the passer that you don’t see every day, so it throws guys off a little bit.”
The Packers had plenty of time to prepare a game plan this week without Guion and Jones, but they still had to get both players ready to play in the regular season. Trgovac said one of the primary adjustments was having Guion and Jones play later in preseason games instead of with the starting unit.
Jones injured his knee against the Steelers and did not return during the preseason, but Guion played in the second half in the Packers’ preseason finale against the Saints. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said the way play time was distributed allowed each defensive lineman to receive complete evaluations.
“You’re trying to give everybody opportunities,” McCarthy said. “That part really didn’t change. If you watched the way we rotated the players and the way we played in the preseason games, we’re making sure we had enough information to make the right evaluations on who to keep on the defensive line, and hopefully we repped them in the right patterns to be ready for this game.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood