GREEN BAY - In any other year, the Green Bay Packers might be celebrating the return of defensive lineman Mike Pennel from a four-game suspension with balloons, noisemakers, banners and cake.
Pennel is returning just in the nick of time to face the impressive Dallas Cowboys running game and what defense wouldn’t be high-fiving the return of a 6-4, 330-pound man-mountain coming off the best training camp of his life?
The reality is that Pennel isn’t a savior.
He returns having to earn a place on the NFL’s top run defense, not have it handed to him. The Packers have a pretty good thing going on defense and Pennel’s job will be to play to the standard they have set through four games this season.
“They’ve been playing really well, man,” Pennel said Monday, the first time he has been able talk to the media since his suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy started Sept. 4. “Seeing them guys out there week to week, the hardest thing was just not being a part of that. Seeing them, I just want to get ready to get back and see where I can contribute.”
To show how well the Packers’ run defense has been playing, their stats actually got worse after they held the New York Giants to 43 yards on 15 carries. They had been holding opponents to 1.8 yards per carry, but after their 23-16 victory at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, it’s up to 2.0.
The Packers' run defense ranks first in yards allowed per game (42.8), yards per carry allowed, runs of 20 or more yards allowed (zero), first downs allowed (12) and first-down percentage allowed (14 percent) and tied for second in fewest touchdowns allowed (one).
It certainly can be argued that they’ve caught every break in the book and have only faced one top running back in four games, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson. Jacksonville was without Chris Ivory in Week 1, Detroit had just lost Ameer Abdullah to a season-ending injury in Week 3 and the Giants were without Rashad Jennings on Sunday night.
So, it could be that Pennel’s return is more important than it might seem because the Cowboys, with their elite offensive line and rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott, lead the NFL in rushing with 155.2 yards per game. Pennel did not overlook whom the Packers were playing his first week back.
“Every week, every week,” Pennel said when asked if he had spent extra time watching the Cowboys.
The biggest concern Pennel and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac had with Pennel being away from the practice field was him losing his conditioning and gaining weight. Pennel had worked hard in the offseason to keep his weight in the 330 range and at the time he began serving his suspension he was at 333.
During the five weeks he was gone — it was a four-game suspension and so the bye week didn’t count as time served — Pennel was allowed to go to position meetings and work out at the facility, but he couldn’t watch practice or go to games. He said he did not waste his time during the off-facility hours.
“It actually went better than expected,” Pennel said. “I’m actually below 330 probably for the first time since coming in in the regular season. Just feeling real good, real fresh and that’s an advantage to have on guys you’re playing against that have been banging for four weeks.”
Pennel would have started in the 3-4 defense along with nose tackle Letroy Guion and end Mike Daniels had he not been suspended. The Packers haven’t played a lot of 3-4, but when they did they used outside linebacker Datone Jones and rookie Dean Lowry as the end opposite Daniels.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has the option of playing more 3-4 with Pennel or using him on early downs with either Guion or Daniels in the nickel. Because Pennel is quicker than Guion and showed much-improved pass rush during training camp, he could take snaps from rookie Kenny Clark on passing downs.
But he’ll have to earn his snaps.
“I think our young guys have stepped up and certainly our veteran guys have done a nice job,” Capers said. “We just have to keep moving forward in that area because it has an impact on what you do defensively. We’ll have our biggest challenge to date this weekend.”
To activate Pennel, the Packers will have to clear a spot on the 53-man roster and the most logical move would be to waive rookie Brian Price and see if he can be returned to the practice squad where he started the season. He would have to clear waivers in order to rejoin the team.