GREEN BAY – There might have been days when the coaching staff and front office gave up on dreaming what it would be like to have Nick Perry and Datone Jones line up together and play like first-round picks.
But those that stuck with it were rewarded Sunday when the pair played as well as they have in their four years together with the Green Bay Packers.
Now that the dream is realized, those same people are wondering whether it can happen for an entire season.
If Perry, the No. 28 pick in the 2012 draft, and Jones, the No. 26 pick in the ’13 draft, can sustain what they did in the season opener at Jacksonville, the Packers could have their best defense since the Super Bowl season in 2010.
“It’s still real early,” said Winston Moss, associate head coach / linebackers. “This is only going into the second game. I’m going to say that they’ve had a real good offseason, a real good preseason and last week they were off to a really good start.
“And now they have to move forward, not backward.”
Perry, starting at outside linebacker ahead of Julius Peppers, wasn’t flashy in the 27-23 victory at EverBank Stadium, but he was forceful. Early in the game, it was evident he was going to be someone the Jaguars would have a hard time containing.
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He was a stone wall on the edge in the run game and was after quarterback Blake Bortles quite a bit, logging three tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and several pressures. Perry, who was healthy for the offseason program and through training camp for the first time in his career, looked like the guy the Packers thought they were getting in the draft.
They rolled the dice and signed him to a one-year, $5 million contract in the offseason with the hopes his strong finish last year would carry over.
“I just wanted to put my best foot forward to put myself in the position I got in Sunday,” said Perry, who had missed 18 of a possible 64 regular-season games due to injury. “A lot of it is studying and understanding what’s going on. I’ve worked hard.
“My whole approach was making sure I was healthy and available and everything else would take care of itself. You see it time and time again over the course of the years, you see flashes here and there, but there were just the little things that didn’t allow me to play at my best.”
Jones battled injury, too, and last year the coaches decided to switch him from a defensive lineman to a hybrid outside linebacker, a position Peppers has played since he arrived in 2014. After losing 20 pounds in the offseason, Jones took his playbook with him to the outside linebackers room full-time and began learning how to play standing up.
There were flashes of his ability during the exhibition season and then Sunday he played with speed and power. He was disruptive. He provided the force that allowed Letroy Guion to make a tackle for loss, he zipped past a pulling guard to force a zero-yard run and then set up Perry’s sack with pressure on Bortles.
He played 40 snaps total while playing three different positions: outside linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle.
“I would say definitely Datone’s a stronger player, a more physical player today than he was two years ago,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “With that, we’ve done a good job of utilizing his versatility. He has the ability from a three-technique all the way out to a nine.
“Players that have more ability, that have the multiple skill-set that you can utilize, especially over the course of a season, it’s a real asset. I think with that, you’ve seen he’s been given more opportunities to make plays, and he’s been productive with that.”
Jones said that despite the loss in weight he was able to maintain his strength and doesn’t feel overmatched playing as a defensive tackle in the nickel and dime packages. Staying healthy has been a key to his success, but also being put in a room with Clay Matthews, Peppers, Perry and Jayrone Elliott has kept him on edge.
There are opportunities for him, but he has to earn them.
“The thing is, we’re all competing,” Jones said. “That’s what makes it fun. It’s making us better. It’s lifting the competitive spirit in our room and our goal is to make it contagious in the locker room.”
If the two can’t sustain their level of play, the Packers have Peppers as an insurance plan, someone who can play a lot more than the 29 snaps he played against the Jaguars.
It’s obvious the Packers think Perry and Jones playing at the level they did in training camp and Sunday in Jacksonville makes for a better defense than playing the 36-year-old Peppers 50 or 60 snaps. Peppers was not part of the regular rotation at outside linebacker and played almost exclusively in the dime package as a pass rusher against Jacksonville.
Each of the last two seasons Peppers has asked that his snaps be reduced so he can be fresher at the end of the year, but he probably didn’t expect such a radical adjustment after seeing only minor changes last year.
"Look, this is what I’m doing: I’m playing the game plan the way that it’s written up and the way it’s presented in the meetings on Wednesday," Peppers said. "Less opportunities is something that’s going to be an adjustment. It’s a long season. A very long season. I think we all are going to have to figure it out.
"Me, I’m going to have to make that adjustment and see how I fit into the role that I am being asked to play. I think the coaches upstairs are going to have to figure out the role that they want me to play – when they want to put me in, what’s enough, what’s not enough."
Peppers seemed surprised he was being asked whether he was unhappy with the number of snaps he was receiving, but he understands there is a big difference in his role.
"It’s an adjustment,” Peppers said. "If you’re playing 55 to 60 snaps, you have opportunities to pace yourself, pick spots. When you’re not playing as many and you don’t know necessarily when you’re going to be in, you do have to sometimes make it happen when you’re out there because you don’t know.
"Pass rush is a four-quarter game, where you set guys up and when it’s money time, in the late third or fourth quarters, and you have something that you know you want to go to because you set it up in the first half … all of those things."
For now, that kind of thinking is reserved for Perry and Jones. They're the ones out front.