GREEN BAY – Despite a second violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy in the same season, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said the organization will not turn its back on defensive lineman Mike Pennel.
The third-year defensive tackle will end his year just like it began, serving a four-game suspension to close out the regular season. Pennel would be eligible to return for any playoff games, though the Packers would be a longshot for the postseason if they don’t beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
Asked if Pennel’s future with the team was in danger after a second suspension for the same violation, McCarthy backed his defensive tackle with support.
“It’s disappointing professionally,” McCarthy said. “But personally, Mike has an issue. And it’s important, it’s the focus of our football program, to help him through this time. That’s really my focus, and that’s really the conversation that I had with Mike Pennel.”
The last time McCarthy supported a player following a drug issue, it was defensive tackle Letroy Guion following the 2014 season. The Packers signed Guion to a three-year contract that offseason.
There was a time Pennel figured to be a starter in the Packers base 3-4 defense, and a prominent member of the defensive line rotation in nickel and dime. That never bore out as the season progressed, with Pennel struggling to recover from his initial four-game suspension to start the year.
Pennel never played 20 snaps in any of his eight games. He played a quarter of his team’s defensive snaps only twice. On the season, Pennel finished with five tackles.
He had 16 tackles and a sack last fall.
“It’s disappointing,” McCarthy said, “because Mike’s one of our guys. He’s part of our defensive line rotation. A rotation that’s been very healthy, especially since he’s come back. So it just really creates other opportunities for other players, and that’s the way we’ll go.”
The Packers will make a roster move at some point this week, filling Pennel’s vacated spot. A logical replacement would be practice squad defensive tackle Brian Price, though he has practiced through a bruised knee the past couple weeks.
The Packers don’t necessarily have to replace Pennel with another defensive lineman. They have plenty other roster concerns, particularly at linebacker. Even if Clay Matthews (shoulder), Jake Ryan (ankle) and Blake Martinez (knee) are available Sunday, it remains to be seen how productive any of them will be because of health reasons, and the edge rush will be without Nick Perry (hand).
The defensive line could also be bolstered with not only first-round rookie Kenny Clark, but fourth-round rookie Dean Lowry. While Clark has played regularly for the most part, Lowry got his first extended playing time (18 snaps, 27 percent) against the Houston Texans on Sunday. Lowry responded with a sack, tackle for loss and batted pass.
McCarthy said Lowry has earned more snaps.
“It has nothing to do with Mike Pennel's situation,” McCarthy said. “I think Dean Lowry, based on the way he's performed, deserves more opportunities. So that's something that really you address when you put the game plan in, but … it depends on how they play the game, too. The way the game unfolds really affects the snaps and reps of particularly your younger guys.”
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