Pennel suspension will leave hole in Packers' D

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Pennel during organized team activities.

Mike Pennel didn’t play until the first snap of the second half of the Green Bay Packers’ preseason opener Friday night, and on that first play you saw what their defense will be missing for the first month of this season.

The third-year defensive lineman fought a double-team block, held his ground and maybe even got a little push on the line of scrimmage. He didn’t make the tackle but he did his dirty-work job by occupying blockers and clogging his area in the middle of the line.

But there’s a reason Pennel didn’t play in the first half against the Cleveland Browns. He’s suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

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That leaves a hole in the Packers’ defensive line for at least a month, and for all practical purposes, a little longer than that. Pennel is allowed to work out and attend meetings at the Packers’ facility during his suspension, which begins with the regular-season opener, but he can’t play in the games. That’s a better setup than the NFL’s old system, where a drug suspension banned the player from even showing up at the team’s facility. But though Pennel will remain engaged with the team while out, it still means he won’t be in game shape when he returns for the Packers’ home game against Dallas on Oct. 16.

Look at Letroy Guion’s struggles for the first several weeks after his three-game suspension under the same policy last year. In reality, Pennel’s suspension will cost him five or six games.

That means the Packers won’t have their best five-technique defensive lineman for a third of the season. It’s worth noting that to start the game Friday night, they had Guion at nose tackle, Mike Daniels at the three-technique and fourth-round compensatory pick Dean Lowry in Pennel’s place at the five-technique. Lowry wasn’t the rookie anybody expected to be out there.

First-round pick Kenny Clark was noticeably absent from the starting lineup, but in retrospect it makes sense. Clark doesn’t have the length to play the five-technique, and he’s still behind Guion at his best position, nose tackle. In fact, Guion — without drawing much notice this summer — is having a nice camp.

Though Clark can play the three-technique, that’s Daniels' spot, and Daniels is the team’s best defensive lineman.

So while it’s still safe to assume Clark will be a big part of the defensive-line rotation, the Packers still have a hole at the five-technique to start the season.

This isn’t catastrophic, because defensive coordinator Dom Capers plays nickel or dime personnel (two defensive linemen) probably 80 percent of the defensive snaps, if not more. The 3-4 base no longer is a big part of the scheme.

But Capers’ run defense, especially short yardage and goal line, will be worse off without Pennel. His size (6-4, 332 pounds), and arm length (33¾ inches) plus brute strength to keep blockers at bay are tough for the Packers to replace, even if he winds up playing only part time upon his return.

As for Capers’ defense overall, make what you will out of a first preseason opener, especially one in which the Packers sat 17 players and the Browns nine. For the Packers, Julius Peppers was a healthy scratch and Clay Matthews might not have played either way, though he’s been sidelined for a couple days because of an ankle injury. Jake Ryan (not in uniform, hamstring), a likely starter at inside linebacker, and starting safety Morgan Burnett (dressed) didn’t play, either.

The Browns, in the meantime, have a new head coach (Hue Jackson) and starting quarterback (Robert Griffin III) and were without their most talented receiver (Josh Gordon). It showed. Micah Hyde intercepted Griffin in the end zone on one series, and the Packers’ starting defense forced a punt after giving up a first down on a second possession. Then Capers brought in the backups.

If anything jumped out, it’s that rookie Blake Martinez still looks like a good bet to play extensively, and maybe even full time, when the games start for real. Capers gave the fourth-round pick the speaker helmet with the starters Friday night, and there didn’t appear to be any hitches there. Martinez missed a tackle in the run game but had a pressure on a blitz that forced Griffin to throw the ball away, and at least appeared to have command of the calls.

It’s also worth noting that Martinez came out with the rest of the starters after that second series. As a rookie, the presumption is that he needs as many preseason snaps as he can get. But with Ryan and inside linebacker Sam Barrington (just off PUP) not in uniform, the Packers clearly didn’t want to expose Martinez to injury any longer than they felt necessary. The quick hook suggests Capers feels good about the rookie at this point in camp.

Regardless, I still can’t help shaking the feeling that the Packers are going to notice Pennel’s absence. He improved as last season went on and was playing his best football at the end of the year. He’s not one of their marquee players, and he’s not a pass rusher. But they don’t have anybody else quite like him for a niche role on their defensive line.

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