Deep Defensive Line Changing Attitude

Don't call this defense "soft" anymore, not with a loaded defensive line leading the charge. The unit's performance has been strong throughout training camp and the three preseason games. The line is so deep that some tough decisions will be looming in a week.

"Soft."

The Green Bay Packers' defense doesn't want to hear that word, and the defensive line is a driving force in changing that reputation.

"Everybody's angry," said second-year defensive end Mike Daniels, who might be the team's most-improved player. "You watch that game today, it had nothing to do with the Seahawks. It was more with us just playing with an attitude whenever we step on the field. It's definitely a welcome change. You can see it from top to bottom, offense and defense. We'd rather dish it out."

The Packers have incredible depth on their defensive line, which will lead to some difficult decisions for Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and their staffs when they cut the roster to 53 players by Aug. 31.

"I'm sure it's going to be some hard decisions in there for Mike and Ted," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said on Wednesday, two days before the preseason game against Seattle. "Personally, I think they're all good football players. We've been together since March or April so anytime you have to cut any of those guys, those guys mean a lot to me."

Even if you count Mike Neal as an outside linebacker — where he's played just about all of his 32 preseason snaps, even with McCarthy saying Neal is a defensive lineman on his depth chart — a good player or two will be asked to turn in his iPad playbook.

What makes this unit so strong and so deep is its versatility.

"We get after it," Daniels said after the game. "We're incredibly versatile. Our ‘pass rushers' can stop the run, our ‘run stoppers' can rush the passer. I think that was evident tonight. When you see the way our guys get after it, I'm happy. I'm happy that everybody's really showing up, everybody's making a push, everybody's making plays, everybody's playing with a mean streak, playing nasty, playing with an attitude. It's very welcome."

Want to play the run? The starting trio of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson, along with Johnny Jolly, have got that covered.

Want to rush the passer? First-round pick Datone Jones, Daniels and Neal can handle that chore.

And that's not including up-and-coming young players Josh Boyd, a fifth-round pick this year, and Jordan Miller, who broke into the league with Chicago in 2011 and has surged during the last couple weeks of camp.

"I agree with that," McCarthy said after the game when asked if this was his best defensive line. "I really like the way our D-line really has done everything. I'm talking about in the offseason, I'm talking about in the weight room, the strength and conditioning, some of the targets that have been hit early. It's a really good mix, it's a really good room. I'm sure when we watch the tape tomorrow, I'll feel the same way as I did last week about those guys. I've been impressed with the D-line."

Take away Christine Michael's 43-yard touchdown run on Friday night — when Jolly and outside linebacker Nate Palmer got blown off the ball — the Packers are allowing 3.21 yards per carry. According to league data, the Packers are allowing 3.48 yards per carry with Pickett in the game, 3.23 with Boyd, 3.17 with Jolly, 2.95 with Raji, 2.67 with Miller, 2.56 with Wilson, 2.43 with Gilbert Pena and 2.00 with Jones. The only defensive lineman with a big number is Daniels, at 5.04. That figure is skewed, though; Daniels was lined up on the offense's left side as Michael ran off right tackle for his touchdown.

For another vantage point, there are the player grades from ProFootballFocus.com. Eight of the nine defensive linemen (not counting Neal) have positive grades, with Daniels (first), Jolly (second), Miller (fifth) and Wilson (sixth) ranking among the team's six top defenders. Of the 74 3-4 defensive ends getting at least 25 percent playing time, Daniels ranks second, Jolly sixth, Wilson 24th and Boyd 27th.

The numbers, however, probably are working against Boyd and Miller, with Raji, Pickett, Wilson, Jolly, Jones and Daniels (and Neal) taking six spots. Miller, the team's No. 2 nose tackle, was one of the best players on the field on Friday night. He had one sack and got into the backfield on several other occasions.

"Jordan's a good football player," Trgovac said.

Boyd has fallen behind Jolly on the pecking order but he has youth on his side, and youth typically is a major tiebreaker for Thompson. Boyd had a sack against St. Louis and has had better pressure in the games than the practices.

"Josh Boyd's going to be a good football player," Trgovac said. "Josh is going to be an excellent football player. Josh can do all the things we ask him to do. He's got a lot of good ability. Just like any rookie that's coming in from a different system and transitioning into our system, he's working. He's very serious right now, and he's doing a good job at what we're asking him to do. In this defense, it takes a little bit longer. Look at (Brett) Keisel for the Steelers. (Heck), he was on their practice squad for three years before he picked it up."

With the additions of Jones and Boyd and the improvement of Daniels and Miller, the defensive line is deep and leading the way for a defense that is sick of being compared to tissue. That was evident during Friday's unusually chippy preseason game.

"I don't know about yapping but there was a lot of hitting," Daniels said. "We were doing a lot of the hitting. It's a welcome change. Call us soft if you want but don't say that anymore."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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