GREEN BAY – Sometime in September the Green Bay Packers should know whether defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson will be the force he was for the New York Jets in 2015.
Five practices into training camp they know they have a healthy, experienced veteran with a wealth of talent who has shown a willingness to share his knowledge of new coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.
Time will tell whether Wilkerson is truly on a mission to regain his good name (72 tackles, 12 sacks, five passes broken up and two forced fumbles in ’15) following two miserable years with the Jets in which the team went 10-22 and he went from fan favorite to handsomely rewarded scapegoat.
As of now, everyone seems happy.
“It’s great,” Wilkerson said. “Having fun with the guys. We’re in pads. Everybody is working every day, trying to get better. So, things are good.”
Wilkerson is reunited with Pettine, his first defensive coordinator and a huge proponent of his talent and personality. The rest of the defensive line is learning step by step what Pettine expects and Wilkerson is able to explain it player to player, which can make it more relatable.
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According to Wilkerson, the defense hasn’t changed much since Pettine left the Jets in 2013. As a result, he’s way ahead of the others and he’s able to communicate best practices to his teammates in the classroom, on the sideline and at the line of scrimmage.
“He’s been very helpful,” defensive lineman Dean Lowry said. “We’ve watched a lot of different defenses and pressures when he was with the New York Jets and he helps us with the details of things.
“We’ll always ask him, ‘Hey what did you see here?’ or ‘What’s something we can look for?’ on this certain defense or play. Having a guy who has had great success in this system has been like an extra coach in the room.”
Of course, the Packers did not sign Wilkerson to a $5 million contract to hold a laser pointer in the front of the classroom and show teammates where they’re supposed to be. They signed him to sack quarterbacks and tackle running backs.
The first thing the offensive linemen learned about him is that his listed height and weight of 6-4, 315 pounds does not tell the entire story.
“Mo is a large human being,” said guard Justin McCray, who at 6-3, 317 pounds is not small. “And then he’s deceptively very quick and he has long arms and great power.
“And you can just tell he’s played a lot of football. Real savvy. He brings a lot of things to the game.”
Guard Lane Taylor didn’t have a chance to face Wilkerson all spring because he was recovering from ankle surgery. But he remembers McCray telling him something very important about him.
“I asked McCray, how’s Wilkerson?” Taylor said. “He’s like, ‘Don’t let the belly fool you. The guy can move.’ He definitely can. He’s big. Anytime you can get a big guy who can move, it’s a rare thing.”
In practice Tuesday, Wilkerson’s potential was on display.
In the physical “combo” run drill, he stood his ground on four different match-ups with McCray and patiently waited for the back to get to him. On one play, he shed McCray and wrapped his arms around running back Ty Montgomery as he reached the line of scrimmage. On another, he forced Jamaal Williams to bounce his run outside where he was quickly swarmed by Wilkerson and others.
Earlier in a red zone/goal-line drill he reached up, batted down Aaron Rodgers’ pass and then gave the quarterback the Dikembe Mutumbo finger wag. Then later, on a goal-line play, he broke through the line and helped drop Williams for a 1-yard loss.
Wilkerson isn’t a whirling dervish like Mike Daniels, but his moves appear economical and his unwillingness to vacate his spot unwaveringly. It’s possible he’ll play differently in the heat of a regular-season game, but he knows what Pettine wants from his defensive linemen and doesn’t seem to be doing too much.
“Everybody on the defense knows Mike Pettine’s defense – be physical,” Wilkerson said. “At the same time, do your job. Everybody make sure you communicate and ultimately that’s about it.”
An advantage Wilkerson has on most defensive linemen is that he can play anywhere on the line. Pettine has mostly used him as a 3-4 end or nickle tackle in the early going of camp, but Wilkerson will line up as an end in a four-man front or as a three-technique in the 4-3.
His versatility allows Pettine to gain favorable match-ups with Wilkerson. If there’s a tackle who doesn’t deal with power very well, he can line him up there. If there’s a guard who is slow afoot, he can line him up there. If he wants to run a stunt aimed at creating a one-on-one match-up, he can put Wilkerson any place on the line.
“You see him play inside and outside and so a lot of his sacks have come both from a three-tech but also playing D-end as well,” Lowry said. “I’m sure as the year goes on we’ll be matching him up well against the O-line in terms of how we feel he can beat them.
“But that’s one of the things he can do, play each technique and certainly win in the pass rush.”
How Pettine uses Daniels will also determine Wilkerson’s role. The Packers have not had a pair of inside pass rushers the caliber of Daniels and Wilkerson for a long time and putting them together in the middle of the nickel or dime package could create some challenges across the line of scrimmage.
But both Daniels and Wilkerson must show they can get to the quarterback consistently. Daniels hasn’t had more than five sacks in each of the last three years and Wilkerson has eight in the last two.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” Wilkerson said. “Each and every day, we’re going out there working, competing against each other, trying to make each other better. Our ultimate goal is to make sure the defense is doing our jobs.
“It’s a good group and I’m glad to be part of it.”