Mike Pennel’s four-game drug suspension left the Green Bay Packers thin on the defensive line and vulnerable against the run heading into their season opener in the Florida heat Sunday.
But coordinator Dom Capers’ run defense proved to be excellent and was a big reason the Packers left EverBank Field with a 27-23 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
And while interior linemen Mike Daniels (43 snaps) and Letroy Guion (39 snaps) deserve plenty of credit for holding up well in the heat (90 degrees at kickoff) and humidity, the Packers also got a big lift from outside linebackers Nick Perry and Datone Jones.
Neither of the two former first-round draft picks has been the game changer their draft status suggested they might be, but both opened the 2016 season with strong performances that suggest they’ve found their niches in Capers’ defense and will play meaningful roles this season.
Statistically, Perry (52 snaps) had the far better day with two tackles for a loss among his three tackles, plus a sack. Jones (40 snaps), who also played as an inside rusher on some passing downs, didn’t even register on the stat sheet.
But both were critical to the Packers holding Jacksonville to 48 yards rushing and only a 1.8-yard average per carry because they set a strong edge on the run defense. That meant that when running back T.J. Yeldon (39 yards on 21 carries) tried to bounce his runs outside, he had go all the way to the sideline, which gave the pursuit time to catch him. And Perry went the extra step by getting off his block a couple times to make the play.
The role Perry and Jones would have in shutting down the Jaguars’ run game showed from the Jaguars’ first possession, when on second-and-10, Yeldon took a handoff to his left. Perry, playing at right end in the Packers’ nickel personnel, took on tight end Julius Thomas, drove him a back, then got off the block to make the tackle for only a two-yard gain.
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The key was that Perry was strong enough to keep his arms extended as he battled Thomas. That allowed him to throw off the block and make the tackle. If he’s locked in tight with the tight end, he can hold the edge but can’t shed the block and make the play. That tackle set up a third and eight, and the Packers intercepted on the next play.
Later in the quarter, on a first down with 9:36 left, Jacksonville’s best blocking tight end, Mercedes Lewis, tried to block Perry. But in what would be emblematic of much of the day, Perry stoned him at the line of scrimmage, and with Jones also holding his ground as a defensive tackle on the play, there was nowhere for Yeldon to run.
Guion then sifted down the line to drop Yeldon for a two-yard loss, so he got the credit on the stat sheet. But Perry made the play.
Likewise, Jones absolutely blew up a run several snaps later, on a first down, when left guard Luke Joeckel pulled and blocked him. Jones met Joeckel behind the line of scrimmage and knocked back the guard a good two yards. That cut off Yeldon’s path to the outside, and when he cut back Clay Matthews and Guion cleaned up the tackle for a loss of two yards.
Again, nothing on the stat sheet, but Jones made the play. That’s winning run defense.
So sure, give Daniels and Guion credit for holding up tough in the middle of the scrum in the hot Florida sun. But Perry and Jones played an equally big role in preventing the Jaguars from wearing out the Packers’ defense on the ground.
Rust never sleeps
You probably had to expect that the timing between Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson would be off because of how little they’ve worked together since Nelson’s last real game, the NFC championship game in January 2015.
The question is whether they can return to their high level of play together as Nelson works into better football shape coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery and they get more time together to shake off the rust.
Nelson had been back practicing for three weeks after missing all last season, and most of that was only part-time work. He returned only for individual drills for one week, then on scout team for the preseason finale, before returning to his regular role for Jacksonville. He wasn’t going to be game sharp for the opener.
But we’re also talking about a 31-year-old receiver coming off a major injury. So it’s not a given he’ll ever be the same guy this season even as his conditioning and timing improve.
Either way, the timing issues between two showed Sunday. We know that one of Nelson’s roles is to threaten defenses over the top, but really his signature plays with Rodgers are along the sidelines on back-shoulder throws and outs that keep drives alive by converting third downs.
At Jacksonville, the two failed to connect twice on those kind of third-down plays, one early and one late.
The first was early in the second quarter on a play that the two have mastered the last few years. Rodgers throws low where only Nelson has a shot at the catch. Nelson is great at digging them out. But this one got to Nelson on a short hop. Incompletion and punt.
The other came late in the fourth quarter when the Packers were trying to run out the final 3 1/2 minutes with a four-point lead. This time they tried their patented back-shoulder throw, but the ball was low and behind Nelson and again got to him on the short hop. Incompletion and punt.
Now, the two connected six times on the day, but for only a 5.3-yard average. We don’t know on those two plays whether the throws were just short, or if Nelson isn’t breaking off his patterns well at this point in his comeback. But it’s something to watch over the next month as Nelson gets back into game shape.
» If second-year linebacker Joe Thomas keeps playing this way as the dime linebacker, he might challenge Jake Ryan for playing time in the nickel as well.
Thomas had the best game of his short career, beginning with the great hustle he showed on his interception in the first quarter. He started the play as a blitzer/spy over center, but when quarterback Blake Bortles threw about nine yards downfield over the middle, Thomas turned and chased the ball, and when it was deflected around he was there to catch the carom.
Thomas also set up a Matthews’ sack by steamrolling running back Denard Robinson on a blitz. Thomas added about 10 pounds this year, and he definitely looks like it’s all good weight.
» The book on punter Jacob Schum coming over from Tampa Bay was that he has a big leg but is inconsistent. And so he was Sunday. His first three punts averaged 50 yards and had good hang time, but then when the Packers needed a good punt trying to protect a four-point lead in the final 3:23, he hit a 34-yarder out of bounds. That kind of punt in a key situation was what the Packers were looking to improve when they cut Tim Masthay near the end of camp.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1