GREEN BAY – There was something fairly remarkable about the Green Bay Packers’ defense yielding only 16 points last weekend as three of its best defenders watched from the sideline, bundled up against the cold on a frigid night at Lambeau Field.
With cornerback Damarious Randall and edge rushers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews all injured, a skeleton crew punched above its weight against the Minnesota Vikings.
Chief among the pugilists was outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert, a practice squad mainstay whose regular-season debut was two years in the making. He had missed a spot on the 53-man roster by the smallest of margins in early September — a player or two, perhaps — and the Packers finally promoted him a few days before Christmas when injuries dovetailed with a failed playoff push.
“He’s good,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “I’ve gone against him a lot, me and (right tackle) Bryan (Bulaga) have. We’ve been kind of baffled that he hasn’t had his chance. But we always told him, ‘Look, just keep doing your thing and you’ll get your opportunity. Keep paying the piper, and eventually he will reward you.’ And he’s rewarded, you see it. Definitely taking advantage of an opportunity. To be honest, I’m not too shocked about his production.”
Though he didn’t start, Gilbert earned the most snaps (46) of any pass rushers against the Vikings after rotating into the first possession. The aggressive motor and slippery quickness that served him well in training camp resurfaced against top-flight competition, namely right tackle Mike Remmers, and Gilbert sliced into the backfield for three pressures and two quarterback hits, tied with nose tackle Kenny Clark for most on the team.
Gilbert’s debut proffered the type of jolt fans had hoped to see from rookie outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who came off the PUP list midway through the season and has been steady if unremarkable ever since. The Packers would welcome another pass rusher with open arms should Gilbert string together another strong performance against Detroit.
“I was glad you asked about him,” Matthews said. “I was going to bring something up. I’m really happy for Reggie that he got an opportunity. I joked with him after the Carolina game looking at the number of injuries at outside linebacker that he should go upstairs and make a case for being on the active roster, and he must’ve listened to me. Or it was just coincidence that he got activated.
“I tell you what, I’ve never seen a guy that’s progressed as much as he has over the past two years. And I think that stems from the way in which he practices. Being on the practice squad and going up against guys like Dave and Bulaga and some of these guys each and every day, I’m sure you could ask them, that he probably gives them the most fits in practice. And then on top of that, being able to watch him this past preseason and some of the games, just the athleticism he has and natural pass-rush ability but to finally put on display for a meaningful game is big for him.
“I know he was a little disappointed at the beginning of the year not being part of the active roster, but for him to get out there and make a few plays and have some great rushes and kind of be all over the film I think speaks volumes to the way he’s worked over the past two years and hopefully is an indication of what he possesses and what he can reach.”
The progression Matthews mentioned began the moment Gilbert signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent on May 6, 2016, at which point the coaching staff initiated a position change. Gilbert had spent most of his career at Arizona with a hand in the dirt as a 4-technique in a 3-3-5 defense, but the Packers envisioned him as a stand-up outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme.
His transition moved in fits and starts. In the spring of 2016, shortly after signing, Gilbert spent the first batch of organized team activities acclimating himself to playing off the ball in a two-point stance. In the fall of 2016, as a member of the practice squad, Gilbert immersed himself in the playbook to absorb the principles of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose coverage responsibilities were completely foreign. In the winter months, after the Packers lost in the NFC Championship game, Gilbert dedicated his offseason to increasing the fluidity of his pass-rushing techniques.
“Just understanding the coverage concepts, the different fire zones we’ve got and Cover-2 principles, I feel like that was a big adjustment for me,” Gilbert said. “I played the majority as a 4-technique (in college), so I was inside the majority of the time. It was a little bit of a transition actually being on the edge on a consistent basis and rushing the passer. It was a little bit of a transition going from down to a two-point stance. But everything worked out. Coach (Winston) Moss and everybody, they all helped me out and definitely helped ease my transition.”
“And I feel like these (past) OTAs really just made a jump for me.”
But with final cuts came another round of disappointment as general manager Ted Thompson unveiled his 53-man roster in early September. Gilbert thought he had done enough to make the team after leading the Packers in sacks during the exhibition season. He wondered if someone would claim him on waivers after Thompson and the front office disagreed.
When the dust settled, Gilbert re-signed with the Packers for another stint on the practice squad. He saw the depth chart and recognized an opportunity — even if it took a few months longer than he expected.
“It’s been tough, I can’t even lie,” Gilbert said of waiting for his chance to play. “It’s been tough. But I just had to maintain my faith and maintain my work ethic. Then I just had confidence in myself that everything would work out, so I’m just glad it did finally.”
And sure enough, the head coach liked what he saw last week.
Said Mike McCarthy: “I can’t say enough about Reggie stepping up.”