It was one of the few Green Bay Packers highlights from a 38-8 loss at Arizona: Mike Pennel tossing aside Cardinals right guard Ted Larsen like a rag doll early in the first quarter and taking down quarterback Carson Palmer.
It was the first career sack for the 6-foot-4, 332-pound defensive tackle, an undrafted free agent out of Division II Colorado State-Pueblo in his second season with Green Bay. But according to Packers offensive line coach Mike Trgovac, Pennel should have several more.
“Mike can push the pocket,” Trgovac said. “He can get off blocks and he made that sack, but it really shouldn’t have been his first. He’s had opportunities when he’s been in position to make other ones. Every week we keep working: hands, feet, all the fundamentals of the game because he’s a big, strong guy and it’s coming.”
Pennel has been showing steady improvement and is the Packers’ third highest-rated defensive player according to Pro Football Focus, behind only defensive end Mike Daniels and safety Morgan Burnett. He has 33 tackles (21 solo) on the season and also forced a fumble against the Cardinals.
“Mike will take himself as far as he wants to go because he’s a physical talent,” Trgovac said. “When you watch guys walk in the door, that’s what you want them to look like. Now, it’s going to be up to him to take the things that we’re teaching him and apply it to the game, and he’s been getting better at that and working hard at it. I guarantee he hasn’t reached his peak yet.”
Pennel took a long, winding road to Green Bay. His resiliency in overcoming childhood cancer and then resurrecting his football career at Colorado State-Pueblo after a turbulent year at Arizona State was detailed in a story by the Press-Gazette’s Ryan Wood in September.
Pennel sat down recently with Press-Gazette Media to discuss his progress with the Packers:
You got your first career sack Sunday against the Cardinals. What was that feeling like?
Ah, relief! Finally! I’d been getting a lot closer than I did last year so it felt good to be able to get the first one. I looked directly to the sideline because I thought they were going to give him forward progress so I didn’t know it was a sack for a little bit but nonetheless, it was a good feeling.
You’ve been on a roll lately with the sack, a forced fumble at Arizona and applying persistent pressure. What’s been the difference?
I’m working the fundamentals a little bit. I’m noticing a difference in my game from this time last year. Just trying to keep on getting better every game, play a complete game. Being gap sound and making plays, trying to find that fine line.
What kind of challenge will Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater represent Sunday?
He’s a good young quarterback, does a great job with his cadence. He moves well, finds his escape lanes fast. So we’ve got to be sound in our pass-rushing lanes and not overplay him.
As a run stopper, what will you do to try to contain Adrian Peterson?
He’s a Hall of Fame running back. He hasn’t really lost a step and can take the ball anywhere. So we just have to be gap sound and hold the integrity of the defense.
How do you feel the defensive line is progressing on the whole?
We’re a close group. Everyone works hard in the offseason. It’s been good to see guys performing at a high level this season, everybody supporting each other in our rooms. We want to be a good unit, and we know we have some more steps to go and we’re taking those steps every week.
You overcame serious health issues in your youth. What do you take away from that?
Life is short and it could have ended early for me; I’m blessed that it didn’t. So now I just try to take advantage of my opportunities. I’ve always had great support from my family. To overcome something like that, I’m just glad that I’m able to help children and other people do the same thing. Tour drives, charities, anything I can do with Kids with Cancer, wearing the color pink … anything that I can do to have a positive influence on that situation.
Looking back at the long road you took to get here – including one season at Arizona State where you got suspended – you’ve always credited John Wristen, your coach at Colorado State-Pueblo. What did he help you accomplisih?
Everything. He and my coach at my (Scottsdale, Ariz.) junior college, Doug Madoski, those guys, they just helped me a lot mentally, preparing me for what was next. They always had the utmost confidence in me. I fed off of that and I was able to have confidence in my play and to understand that the goals that I wanted to accomplish weren’t as far away as they seemed. I’m forever in debt to those guys.
What do you see as your role and your potential going forward?
I just want to get better every day. I want to be able to play at a high level at any position. Anything that Coach (Mike) McCarthy or Coach Trgo say I should work on, I want to take that to heart and work hard at it. I don’t want to just stay the same; I always want to escalate and never go down.
The Packers have been up and down this season. How much would it mean to cap it by beating the Vikings to claim another division title?
We have a tradition of winning. We’ve been a little up-and-down this year but we’re still playing for a division title. We’re a very balanced team that will come together in hard times, so we just want to get this win this week and start piling them up in the playoffs.
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