Defensive line delivers despite heat
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mike Daniels ambled through the visitor’s locker room carrying a grape Gatorade, a chocolate protein shake and a towel. His white undershirt was soaked through. His face still glistened.
Twenty minutes after the Green Bay Packers opened their season with a 27-23 win that felt more like survival, Daniels’ pulse resumed to resting. The sweat still flowed.
“It was pretty hot out there,” Daniels said.
The kind of heat that induces references to death. As in, quarterback Aaron Rodgers would say later, both defenses were “dying” when the no-huddle tempo cranked up.
Kickoff temperature was 90 degrees, with a heat index of 97. It only got hotter through the afternoon. In the second half, thermometers at field level spiked at 110 degrees.
BOX SCORE: Packers 27, Jaguars 23
That’s a hellish existence for 300-pound defensive tackles wearing shoulder pads and a helmet that acts more like a convection bake oven. At one point in the second half, Daniels took a knee on the sideline and tried not to pass out.
“Yeah,” Daniels said, “but I came back in the game, right? So I was fine. But I had to gather myself.”
Yeah, Daniels kept coming back. So did veteran linemate Letroy Guion. On a field that felt like a frying pan, Daniels unofficially played 45 snaps Sunday. Guion unofficially played 47.
You could count the number of snaps with neither Daniels nor Guion on the field with two hands, with fingers left over. One play was a 37-yard screen pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis. Another resulted in a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Julius Thomas.
If there was one reason to be nervous about the Packers opening against a Jaguars team that finished 5-11 last season, it was their young, thin defensive line holding up in the swelter. Defensive end Mike Pennel’s four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy left a unit short on experience. Rookies Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry, as well as fifth defensive lineman Christian Ringo, combined for no NFL experience entering Sunday.
The Packers couldn’t afford for Daniels or Guion – let alone both – to be off the field. So they rarely visited the sideline. No, it wasn’t ideal. The Packers made it work.
Daniels and Guion became a big reason the Packers left Jacksonville with a 1-0 record. The Packers allowed 48 rushing yards to a Jaguars offense that averaged 92.1 per game last season.
“We really could’ve held them down under 30,” Daniels said.
The Packers were gashed on the ground in their past two season openers. In 2014, they allowed 207 yards at the Seattle Seahawks, including 110 and two touchdowns on 20 carries to Marshawn Lynch. A year ago, the Chicago Bears had 189 rushing yards, including 141 and a touchdown on 24 carries from Matt Forte.
The collapsing, early-season defense chewed at Daniels. Vindication came with this trip to Jacksonville.
"We really stopped the run today," Daniels said. "Last two years, we didn’t open up particularly well stopping the run, and I think we did a heck of a job today."
The Packers got some help before kickoff.
Chris Ivory, who signed with the Jaguars as a free agent this off-season, was expected to be the lead tailback and form a solid one-two punch with T.J. Yeldon. Instead, Ivory was admitted to the hospital Sunday morning with an undisclosed medical issue.
Yeldon, thrust into a workhorse role, finished with 39 yards on 21 carries. His 1.9 yards-per-rush average mirrored the Jaguars’ collective 1.8 average as a team.
“I don’t think it would’ve mattered who they brought today,” Guion said. “We’ve got a pretty good front as a defensive line. We look forward to challenges every week. We’re going to try to stop whoever comes at us.”
It remains to be seen whether a beefed-up run defense will become a trend. Next week, the defensive front will be tested when the Packers travel to the Minnesota Vikings, where running back Adrian Peterson awaits.
But the Packers were able to turn the Jaguars offense into a one-dimensional unit Sunday. Quarterback Blake Bortles completed 24 of 39 passes for 320 yards and one touchdown with one interception. The Jaguars hit big passing plays down the field, including four that traveled more than 20 yards.
Regardless, the Jaguars’ inability to grind down the clock prevented them from keeping Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews said the pair of defensive tackles set a tone up front.
“It was difficult for everybody,” Matthews said, “but especially those bigger guys … in the trenches. We ask a lot of them, and fortunately the heat didn’t catch up to them. They were able to make their plays when it counted, get in there, stop the run and disrupt the quarterback. That’s what we needed.”
Together, Guion and Daniels knew Sunday would be challenging. Guion, a Florida native, said he prepared by sitting in the Packers' sauna 20, 30 minutes at a time. Inside, temperatures can reach 180 degrees.
“If you can withstand that long of a time in there,” Guion said, “stuff like this becomes easy.”
Shirt off, Guion was resting at his locker by the time Daniels ambled by. Before landing in Green Bay, Guion guessed, he would down at least four blue Gatorades. As many as possible, just to rehydrate.
The Packers' defensive line isn’t out of danger. There are three games until Pennel returns, making the unit complete. But Daniels said Sunday proved the defensive front can hold its own until the depth chart stabilizes.
“We’ll be OK,” Daniels said. “If we can play that much in this heat, then we’ll be able to do it in any weather. So we’re fine. We’re fine.”
email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @By