Camp Preview: Top Concern at DL

The expected departure of defensive end Cullen Jenkins leaves a huge hole on the Packers' pass defense. Can Mike Neal pick up the slack? If not, can Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji handle the pass-rushing chores alone?

The NFL is all about passing the football.

That means it's all about stopping the pass, and the best way to stop the pass is to put the opposing quarterback on his butt — or at least make him nervous about the possibility.

Over the last three seasons, there was no interior pass rusher better in the entire NFL at doing just that than Green Bay Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins.

Pro Football Focus put together a formula of sacks, hits and hurries (weighted toward sacks) and divided it by the number of pass-rushing snaps. Jenkins topped the chart, with 111 total pressures on 1,058 plays in which he rushed the quarterback. Last season, he had seven sacks despite missing five full games due to injuries.

That's the kind of production the Packers must replace under the assumption that Jenkins chases the big money as a free agent.

And that's the pressure that rests on the powerful shoulders of Mike Neal.

Neal, a second-round pick in 2010, showed some of Jenkins' potential during training camp and a two-game regular season that was short-circuited at the start by an abdominal strain and ended for good with a shoulder injury that required rotator cuff surgery.

Can Neal provide a Jenkins-like presence on passing downs during the long haul of a 16-game season? Is there anyone else who can pitch in? And if not, can the Packers survive with only Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji — with their 20 combined sacks — as proven, reliable pass rushers?

Those are the answers that must be determined when the competitive parts of training camp begin on Monday.

Neal is the obvious front-runner to take Jenkins' place on passing downs. He was one of the dominant players on the field during the Packers' loss to Washington in Week 5, with a sack, hit and pressure during 37 snaps in which he went after Donovan McNabb. Neal, who had 5.5 sacks during each of his final two seasons at Purdue, possesses a relentless approach and was making major gains under the tutelage of position coach Mike Trgovac.

Trgovac also is high on C.J. Wilson, a seventh-round pick in 2010 who had 10.5 sacks as a junior and 5.5 sacks as a senior at East Carolina. Jarius Wynn's strong suit is rushing the passer, as well. A sixth-round pick in 2009, he had the first 1.5 sacks of his career last year after initially failing to make the final roster.

Still, Neal, Wilson and Wynn are big unknowns while Jenkins — his injury problems notwithstanding — was a sure thing, relatively speaking. And it's not just replacing Jenkins but it's finding a way to take some of the burden off of Raji, who is the team's only nose tackle as well as its best interior rusher. If not, Raji will be forced onto the field in the base defense as well as passing situations.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers can solve some of it through scheme, but at the end, it'll be up to the players to fill the void and make quarterbacks nervous about someone other than Matthews.


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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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