Midterm Report: Defensive Line

With the Packers enjoying a much-needed bye, we continue our position-by-position report on the team with the defensive line. That position group is arguably the most improved on the team, both in terms of sacks and run defense.

Packer Report's position-by-position midseason review continues with the defensive line.

Overview

Position coach Mike Trgovac frequently points out that his unit doesn't play like most teams' defensive lines. Playing the run comes first. Outside of third-and-long situations, his players don't charge upfield at the snap. Thus, sack numbers aren't the best way to judge his unit.

Nonetheless, it's a pass-first league and the Packers' defensive line was dreadful in pressuring the quarterback last season. B.J. Raji (three) and Jarius Wynn (three) combined for all six of the group's sacks. By that measure, Green Bay's defensive line is vastly improved and is a major reason why a defense that allowed more passing yards than any team in NFL history last season is a respectable 20th. Of the Packers' league-leading 29 sacks, the defensive line has contributed 8.5 of them. C.J. Wilson, a run-stopper in the base 3-4 defense, has 2.5 sacks, rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels have two apiece, and another "new" face, third-year player Mike Neal, has the other two.

Meanwhile, with Ryan Pickett leading the charge, the Packers are allowing a ninth-ranked 4.0 yards per rush, a huge improvement over last year's 26th-ranked 4.7.

Report card

-- B.J. Raji: Raji was outstanding in 2010 but wasn't nearly as good in 2011, his Pro Bowl status notwithstanding. He's having a nice bounce-back season, even if it doesn't show up in the stats. He's gone from three sacks and 10 quarterback hits, by the team's count, to zero and zero. Raji (19 tackles) missed two games with a sprained ankle and played well the last two weeks upon his return; the bye comes at a good time. When he has played, his snap count has been reduced, which should help him over the long haul. He had 10 games of 80-plus percent snaps last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com. This year, he hasn't played more than 79 percent (against San Francisco in Week 1) and is 59 percent overall. Grade: C.

-- Ryan Pickett: Pickett has been the defensive line's MVP. Age seems to have no bearing on his ability to withstand one double-team block after another. Pickett leads the unit with 41 tackles (team's count), 12 run stops (Pro Football Focus' count) and three tackles for losses (STATS). Grade: A-minus.

-- C.J. Wilson: Wilson, who starts at right end in the base defense, is second on the defensive line with 29 tackles and has contributed a career-high 2.5 sacks, despite missing one game with a sprained ankle. He was outstanding against Houston, with a sack on the first play and excellent run defense against Arian Foster. Grade: C-plus.

-- Jerel Worthy: The second-round pick (16 tackles, two sacks) brings boundless energy, which is an obvious positive but "sometimes, he's just a wild guy running out there where he doesn't have a plan," Trgovac said. That's particularly evident in the run game, where he's been pushed around too much and sometimes loses gap integrity but has shown an ability to get into the backfield with two tackles for losses. His two sacks have been a major asset as the "starter" in the two-lineman nickel package and the one-lineman bat package. He leads the defense with five penalties. Grade: D.

-- Mike Daniels: The fourth-round pick (eight tackles, two sacks) has as many sacks as Worthy despite getting about one-third as many pass-rushing opportunities. One of those came last week, when Worthy was out with a concussion. Daniels figures to be a key member of the rotation during the second half of the season. Grade: D.

-- Mike Neal: If he can stay healthy, he could be the wild card on a defense that's looking to surge into the playoffs. After playing in nine of a possible 32 games during his first two seasons and serving a four-game suspension to start this season, the powerful and explosive Neal has contributed two sacks and leads the unit with six quarterback hits. The Packers would love a passing-down rotation of Neal, Worthy, Daniels and Raji for the stretch run. Grade: C-minus.

Number to note

19: It's not just sacks. By the team's count, the defensive line has collected 19 quarterback hits. In all of last season, the defensive line contributed just 18.

Quoteworthy

Position coach Mike Trgovac, on Jerel Worthy: "He understands that as things tighten up and it's coming down to the nitty-gritty, we're going to put our guys out there that are producing the most. He's going to be part of a rotation, that's what makes it nice. Hopefully, we'll have those five, six guys and we can keep a rotation going in there. We've just got to keep on rolling. I think competition makes everyone stronger."


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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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