Lighter line paying off in Packers' pass rush

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Daniels (76) celebrates a defensive stop against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field.

Mike Daniels has seen firsthand how the landscape on the defensive line has changed in his three short years as a member of the Green Bay Packers.

Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson are gone, replaced by the likes of himself, Datone Jones and Letroy Guion. Veterans B.J. Raji and Mike Neal remain, though both are much slimmer. It mimics a leaguewide trend of teams going younger and lighter on the line in hopes of establishing a more athletic defense.

As offenses spread out, defenses are placing more emphasis on versatility and less on gap-fillers. A little more than a year ago, the Packers made their own shift in moving away from 330-pound behemoths like Pickett and Jolly, whose sole purpose was to stop the run and clear lanes for linebackers to make plays.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be the first to tell you they haven't totally abandoned their old two-gap scheme. It’s just that opposing offenses have forced them to change. Today, linemen have to be able to pressure the quarterback as well as defend against the run, particularly in a 3-4 scheme like the Packers.

Coincidentally, the face of that movement in Green Bay is Daniels, an undersized, overlooked grinder who just so happens to be one of the league’s most formidable interior pass rushers.

“We just have a different type of personnel up front than we did,” said Daniels, a fourth-round pick in 2012. “We’re built a little differently. We’re playing to our strengths. Back then, that was our strength. Now, our strength is a little different.”

At first, it looked like the Packers might have made a mistake in altering the makeup of their defensive line last season.

After a second-half free-fall in 2013, the Packers ushered in a new era centered on young, athletic linemen. The returns weren’t immediate, though. Raji tore his right biceps muscle in the preseason and the Packers ranked dead last against the run through the first eight games.

It wasn’t until after linebacker Clay Matthews moved inside that the run defense began to settle in. With improved play at inside linebacker, the line quickly picked up its production and soon repaid the favor to the pass rush. By season’s end, Daniels (5 ½ sacks) and Guion (3 ½ sacks) were firing on all cylinders.

So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see the line start fast this year with Raji returning to the fold and Daniels another year wiser. The Packers’ defensive line has tallied 4 ½ sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 40 hurries in its first six games, according to Pro Football Focus.

That puts the unit well on its way to blowing away the line’s pressure from 2013 (10 sacks, 13 hits, 64 hurries) and 2012 (12 sacks, nine hits, 54 hurries). The production has a direct correlation to the success of the defense, which enters Sunday’s game against Denver ranked second in the NFL with 23 sacks.

“We wanted to give them the ability to make plays and get off blocks,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “When we do it right, we’re a disciplined, gap-sound, fundamental football team. We’re not a fly-off-the-ball, do-what-we-want football team. There’s some method to our madness, but we have guys who have just a little bit more quickness that when they get off the blocks.”

The Broncos run a comparable 3-4 scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and lead the NFL in most major defensive categories. They also have the league’s third-ranked run defense despite not having a single defensive lineman on their roster weighing more than 320 pounds.

Starting nose tackle Sylvester Williams is listed at 313. He’s anchored by ends Malik Jackson (6-foot-5, 293) and Derek Wolfe (6-foot-5, 285). The Packers’ run defense would be right up there with Denver's if not for two wayward performances against Chicago and St. Louis dropping it to 22nd in the league.

The abundance of spread offenses has forced Capers’ units to get better defending the run with sub-package personnel rather than the five-man front commonplace in the 3-4 base defense. After running their “Okie” package on 25 percent of snaps last year, it’s conceivable that number dips again this year.

“It’s just the way the game is going and the percentages that you’re in,” Capers said. “I don’t know if it’s been much of we aren’t two-gapping as opposed to the type of personnel groups that they’re putting on the field.”

The beauty of the Packers’ current configuration on the defensive line is nearly everyone can play in any situation, though Jones is off to the best start of his career working mostly in the dime sub-package. The largest lineman on the roster, 332-pound Mike Pennel, even has two hits and three hurries this season.

The overall pressure goes as Daniels goes, though. His 17 sacks in his first three-plus seasons account for close to half of the defensive line’s 37 during that span. Once considered too small to play Division I and too short to thrive in the NFL, Daniels doesn’t fit into any convenient stereotype.

When Eddie Lacy was asked recently who his most competitive teammate is, the third-year running back immediately pointed to Daniels, who plays with a natural chip on his shoulder. An unrestricted free agent after the season, Daniels says he’s not thinking about a contract.

His play suggests otherwise.

“He’s a hard worker,” Raji said. “His background with the wrestling I think has really helped propel him. In my opinion, he’s one of the better interior linemen in this league. I think his hunger to be great, along with his work ethic and attention to detail, is going to set him up for a long career.”

This Sunday, the Packers’ modified line faces another stiff task against the undefeated Broncos. Even with Peyton Manning in the twilight of his career, the 39-year-old quarterback is still as savvy as they come and can beat you just as easily with his brain as his arm.

The key for Daniels and the Packers will be to get Manning uncomfortable and not allow him to step into throws. Statistically, the former NFL MVP doesn’t look like the same player with a 72.5 passer rating and a league-high 10 interceptions.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this year that he felt the defensive line could be the best he’s had during his 10 years with the team. There’s still work to do against the run, but the line is generating more inside pressure than Green Bay has seen since its last Super Bowl run in 2010.

Raji had his best NFL season that year. While the defensive structure has changed, the 29-year-old nose tackle gets a very similar vibe from this year’s team.

“Early off in my career, we’ve had some great defenses here,” Raji said. “I guess from a statistics standpoint we maybe tailed off a little bit, but I think we’re getting back. I’m starting to see some of the similarities on those defenses on this one.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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