GREEN BAY — Through three games, the Green Bay Packers have the stingiest run defense in the National Football League by a wide margin. Their allowance of 42.7 yards per game is nearly 28 yards fewer than the New York Jets, whose defense has yielded the second-lowest total so far this season.
And as soon as Monday, just a few hours after the Packers host the New York Giants, an already forceful unit is eligible to receive another boost when the suspension of nose tackle Mike Pennel expires.
"He’s been very engaged since he’s been here," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said Thursday afternoon. "He’s another one that’s been around here for a few years now, and I think mostly the thing I’ve been impressed with is how much in meetings and stuff he’s talking to players and seeing things."
Pennel, 25, is a mountainous man who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 335 pounds, by far the largest player on the roster. Suspended the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Pennel was eligible to participate in the full offseason program and training camp. He was not allowed to practice, play or speak to the media once the regular season began.
Still, Pennel was incredibly focused, and productive, during the spring and summer months. He was, in some people's mind, the most effective and disruptive defensive lineman in camp. His brute strength allows him to maul opposing offensive lines. His surprising quickness makes him a legitimate force in stopping the run.
"One of the things he and I talked about was every week he’s got to focus like he’s playing, prepare like he’s playing, and he’s done that," Trgovac said. "It’s not like he’s sat up there and he doesn’t know what Jacksonville did, and what their run tendencies are and stuff like that. He’s done a great job of staying focused, and that was one of the big things he and I talked about, was every week he’s been out he’s got to prepare like he wasn’t going to be in that game."
Like Pennel, cornerback Demetri Goodson will be eligible to play following the completion of Sunday's game against the Giants. Goodson, 27, was suspended four games for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs. The suspension precluded Goodson from setting foot in the Packers' facility from the end of training camp through the end of Week 4.
With 53 players on the roster, the Packers need to create two roster spots if they wish to keep both Pennel and Goodson. General manager Ted Thompson does not have to make the move Monday morning and may wish to deliberate throughout the week.
"Pre-planning is something you do all the time, but you’re not going to have all the answers to the equation until we get playing this game on Sunday night," coach Mike McCarthy said Friday morning. "That conversation of how and exactly what’s going to happen will occur Monday after we get the medical report from our training staff."
Though neither player qualifies as a star, both can offer important depth to units who need it. Goodson, a special teams ace and reserve corner, would have added another body for a group dealing with injuries — to No. 1 corner Sam Shields and, previously, rookie Josh Hawkins — and extreme youth. The top three corners ahead of Sunday's game are all second-year players, and only one of them (Damarious Randall) was a starter for the majority of last season.
Had Pennel been eligible to play, he would have been a starter in the base defense alongside veterans Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion. Instead, rookies Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry were counted on a bit earlier than the coaches likely anticipated. Another contributor, first-year player Christian Ringo, spent 2015 on the practice squad.
"So when (Pennel) does come back, he’s right on track where he was," Trgovac said. "Obviously, he hasn’t played. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the mental preparation."