GREEN BAY - When Reggie Gilbert turned the edge Thursday night and saw nothing between him and the quarterback, he wasn’t merely thinking about a sack.
It wasn’t enough to just drag down the passer, Gilbert said. What the Pittsburgh Steelers offered was a freebie, an open layup. Gilbert wanted to add a little flair.
“You think ball,” Gilbert said. “Try to get the ball out. You’ve already got the sack because he doesn’t see you coming. So you definitely want to try to get that ball and try to make a turnover for your defense.”
Gilbert didn’t quite force the turnover, but he gave the Green Bay Packers a chance. His hit jarred the football from Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, popping it into the air. The Steelers recovered, but Gilbert wasn’t done.
Two plays later, Gilbert set up Steelers right tackle Jake Rodgers with an inside move after shimmying to the outside. He didn’t finish his sack, but the disruption gave fellow outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell enough time to reach Rudolph. Later in the second quarter, aided with solid coverage downfield, Gilbert beat Rodgers again for another sack.
“I feel like I had a cool, little rhythm,” Gilbert said.
His 2 1/2 sacks Thursday night showed why Gilbert has ascended the Packers' depth chart. He’s the third outside linebacker behind veterans Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, they're established if injury-prone bookends.
Gilbert’s ascension from the Packers practice squad has been rare. There was little reason to think he would be a significant contributor to the 53-man roster when the Packers signed Gilbert as a free agent after the 2016 draft. He’d been an interior defensive lineman in college at Arizona, playing with his hand in the dirt.
Gilbert not only had to transition to the NFL, he needed to learn a new position.
“I hadn’t seen a guy,” Matthews said, “take his game to the next level in the NFL as much as he has. Just because normal progression – high school, college – you kind of are who you are when you get here (to the NFL). But the athleticism he displays, only a few people truly possess that: the way he’s able to bend, the angles he has, his hands and everything.
“The way he’s playing, I envision him on Sunday rotating in and out of that lineup, just with the way he’s been able to get after the quarterback, what he brings to the pass-rush game.”
The Packers entered camp desperately needing some semblance of a pass-rush rotation. Behind Matthews and veteran Nick Perry, who was recently activated from the physically unable to perform list, the depth chart was stacked with unproven prospects.
Gilbert has shown enough this preseason for the Packers to think they have at least one viable option coming off the sideline, something they never had a year ago. Behind Matthews (7.5 sacks) and Perry (7), Kyler Fackrell had the third-most sacks from the edge with three. Veteran Ahmad Brooks was signed before last season to provide at least a little bit of a rotation, but a chronic back injury prevented him from contributing.
Fackrell has had a quiet preseason, but Gilbert’s emergence is the closest the Packers have gotten to an effective pass-rush rotation since 2016 when the team still had Julius Peppers and Datone Jones. It would give new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine options, perhaps opening up his playbook.
“I think adding another layer of pass rush isn’t a bad thing,” Perry said. “… The more, the better. It gives tackles and tight ends different looks. Now, they have to account for three, four of us when the game plan is started, and we’re all different in our own ways. Teams will have a harder time trying to get a bead on us.
“Adding more to that, we have more firepower to bring anything at them.”
Perry said a rotation on the edge keeps everyone fresh, but it’s a tricky balance. A pass rusher is most effective when in a rhythm, which is acquired over the course of game. A move in the first quarter often leads to a countermove in the fourth.
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With fewer snaps, Perry said, there’s less chance to find that rhythm.
“Rotation is good,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t need it. Sometimes you don’t want it, just when you get into the flow of a game, to disrupt that. Sometimes when you’re getting on and off the field, that’s a fine line we have to work through going forward.”
But, yes, rotation is good. A “great problem” to have, Perry called it.
A rotation would help keep Matthews and Perry fresh. Without it, both missed ample time last fall because of an assortment of injuries. If Gilbert can take some snaps from Matthews and Perry, the whole group would benefit.
Coach Mike McCarthy said Gilbert looks ready to contribute.
“When you watch Reggie play,” McCarthy said, “you see some of Clay in his movements and how he tries to set things up, and obviously the influence of Nick.”
Gilbert’s past could make him a good fit in Pettine’s defense. He has the size (261 pounds) and experience in the trenches to fill the Packers' elephant role, a larger edge defender who can alternate between outside linebacker and defensive line.
Ultimately, Gilbert’s pass-rush production will determine how much he plays. Perhaps most surprising last week wasn’t his 2 1/2 sacks, but how he got them. Each came with Gilbert starting in a two-point stance, showing what he learned from almost two years on the practice squad.
“It’s definitely been a long process,” Gilbert said, “and I’m continuing to work on it every day. I feel like it’s been paying off for me.”