Youthful defensive line to get first test

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - As Green Bay Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac mixed and matched his player combinations during training camp, it’s quite possible that Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Christian Ringo took a few reps together along the front line of the base defense.

Those three players — a first-round pick, fourth-round pick and sixth-round pick, respectively — have a combined age of 66 and zero regular season games between them. All three are likely to make their professional debuts against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon.

Contrast that with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who with a combined age of 68 began earning paychecks as Clark, the youngest player on the team, navigated elementary school. And with 344 games between them, the Packers' youth movement contains some startling context.

“The biggest thing you have to do is evaluate where your young guys are, how much they're going to play for you, how much they can handle and be able to go out and execute efficiently and do it at a high rate of speed,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Because once you get into the regular season, the tempo picks up. It does every phase along the way, (starting with) the preseason games. But Sunday will be a totally different tempo.”

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A year ago, the Packers played their base defense just 17.7 percent of the time and instead operated frequently out of the 4-2 nickel. That statistic minimizes the real-life chance for a Clark-Lowry-Ringo front line in an actual game — an idea mentioned more for effect than practicality — but it does little to shroud the importance of those three players both Sunday and beyond.

With five-technique Mike Pennel suspended for the first four games, at least two of the aforementioned debutants will be counted on to contribute from the opening kickoff, and there’s a good chance the coaches enlist all three to combat the Jacksonville heat. The effectiveness of their support for veterans Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion will be measured in tangible production after last year's defensive line made 22 tackles for loss, their highest total since 2007. Departed nose tackle B.J. Raji accounted for seven of them.

“The only thing you hear from us, the young guys, is that we’re excited to be out there,” Clark said. “I don’t see anybody putting pressure on each other since we’ve been here, you know what I’m saying?”

Part of their eagerness stems from the digestible instructions of Trgovac who, according to multiple linemen, streamlined the pass-rushing responsibilities for his young players.

He deployed Ringo, a compact three-technique at 6-0½ and 300 pounds, as a third-down specialist in sub packages throughout training camp. Ringo took the field in obvious passing situations and, with minimal threat of a run, pinned his ears back to hunt quarterbacks.

“It reminds me of my sophomore year of college, actually,” Ringo said. “I had a role similar to that. Not being a starter, but actually it plays in my favor. We have guys that can play the run better than me, obviously, so (that’s) first and second down. I go in for third down, that’s one down, that’s fresh legs, that’s just like my first down against a guy that just went two or three plays in a series, so I’ve definitely got the advantage. I definitely want to use that advantage. I definitely want to embrace that role.”

But Trgovac took it one step further. In the past, Ringo had used his first rep in practice and games as a chance to show power, which he believed set up the opposing offensive lineman for subsequent speed rushes. Trgovac had other ideas.

“He want me to stay away from the power,” Ringo said. “He want me to be finesse. He want me to use my quickness more. Of course me, I’m used to balancing up.”

Trgovac’s message for Lowry focused on eliminating wasted movement at the snap of the ball. Lowry, whom the Packers drafted to play five-technique, was losing time — precious tenths of seconds as the quarterback prepares to pass — due to his attempted setups, which at times became elaborate.

“He says with my pass rush it’s more important for me to make sure I’m getting off,” Lowry said. “Sometimes I’m shaking and baking on the line and I’m not as effective doing that. He wants me to use my get off to really threaten the edge first and then make an inside move.

“I would say playing inside it’s a lot quicker game. On the outside things happen at a slower pace. Inside you see more double teams, more scoop blocks. Just having your hands ready and the right footwork is really key to playing more inside.”

The emphases for Clark were perfecting his alignment and tilt for various defensive fronts and flipping his hips as routinely as possible.

“He understands and I think he knows he has a responsibility being the first-round pick,” Trgovac said in mid-August. “I like what I’ve seen from him so far.”

But there is still an unnerving component of the Packers’ reliance on youth so early in the season. Despite the hours of teaching, learning and incremental progress, what happens if Clark, Lowry and Ringo aren’t ready? What happens if, come Sunday, the moment proves too large and they become liabilities?

It’s a scenario that undoubtedly has crossed the minds of Capers and McCarthy since early May, when general manager Ted Thompson compiled the 90-man roster without a third, non-suspended veteran along the defensive line.

The simplest solution involves reverting Datone Jones from outside linebacker to defensive end, his initial position as a first-round pick by the Packers in 2013. And while Jones spent the offseason reshaping his body to become an elephant rusher off the edge, where he will join Peppers, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, among others, he continued taking a few reps on the interior with his hand on the ground.

“I’m always still getting the work that Coach Trgovac used to do,” Jones said. “I’m doing it before practice and I’m doing it after because that’s a skill I have to steadily work on.”

And, at 26 years old, Jones would qualify as a veteran along this year's defensive line.

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