Neal, Mike Daniels and Jones — the team's first-round pick — had formed the inside rotation in the Packers' third-down pass-rushing packages. With Neal now a full-time outside linebacker with Matthews out, Daniels and Jones figure to be the team's primary interior duo on third down.
Jones was one of the team's dominant players at the start of training camp. A sprained ankle on his first snap of the preseason, however, served as a bucket of ice-cold water on Jones' red-hot start. While he missed only one game, the lost practice time and the loss of explosion have been major setbacks to a very tepid start to his career. By the team's count, he's got five tackles, no sacks and one quarterback hit in 73 snaps.
"Datone, with the time he missed, it's like he's coming out of the preseason right now," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "Really, probably got less snaps because in the preseason, that second, third, fourth game, we would have played him a ton but he didn't get those reps. He was a shell of himself trying to run on that ankle. He's going to be fine."
Jones said the ankle feels "amazing" now but acknowledges the injury was a "huge setback."
"Injuries, anywhere, can be a big setback but I'm a big guy. I'm a big guy and that's a lot of weight to carry," Jones said. "For me, it was just getting back comfortable, getting stronger. As you can see, I'm playing against veterans every Sunday. I'm finally over the hump. I feel like this has been my preseason these past four games and I'm finally able to get after it."
In the four regular-season games, Jones has been practically invisible beyond a blocked extra point against Washington and the hit on Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton in which Matthews was credited with a sack and forced fumble.
To be sure, the Packers' scheme limits Jones' paper production. This isn't Detroit, where the defensive line is allowed to "jet" off the ball and attack the quarterback. Under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the defensive line typically acts as setup men in order to free up the linebackers.
So, that Jones is ranked 42nd out of 44 3-4 defensive ends in ProFootballFocus.com's pass-rushing productivity metric probably isn't a fair way to judge.
"Depends on the defense called," Trgovac said. "We do a lot of different things. If you are in charge of hitting this gap and going to the outside and making sure everything stays inside you and the blitz is coming inside you, there's not a lot of opportunity for a sack. ...
"We're not your typical four-man-rush-every-down, do-games type of D-line. That's now what we do. We send guys from this way, we send guys from that way, we send guys inside, outside. We're not that kind of defensive line that's going to do that. Now, there are other opportunities when we do that, and I think that's the hardest part for a young cat coming here. ‘I've been asked to do this that, I've been asked to do that. Now it's just a plain old jet rush. Now, I've got to hit it and get it.'"
Adding to Jones' challenge is playing time. With B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson, Jones has no role in the base defense, and Raji, Jolly and Daniels have played a lot in the non-third-down nickel packages. At this point, Jones' role is to come on in third-down passing situations or when the score dictates the opponent throw the ball.
"The thing that he has to learn that's different for him is, he's got to learn to come in for a play and kick some (butt), and then leave," Trgovac said. "Come in for a play, kick some (butt), then leave. He'll get it."
An every-down player for his final three seasons at UCLA, that's been a challenging adjustment.
"That's tough. The last time I did that, I was a true freshman in college," Jones said. "I've had to get used to coming in (situationally), especially playing against veteran O-linemen. Usually, you go in, you start, you get a rhythm with who you're playing against and you're making plays. That's not the case for me. I'm coming in on third down. Every time I go in, I have to get that mind-set of, ‘This is the play I'm in until the next third-and-long.' I've got to come out and play fast."
That's especially true now with Neal out of the defensive line equation. Daniels and Jones should play extensively in passing situations.
"Obviously with No. 1 picks, the expectation level's always extremely high," Capers said. "Datone, like a lot of young guys, you miss certain segments of camp and he missed quite a bit with that ankle, and so it slows your progress down because you need all of that work. I think I've seen some things in practice to where he's practiced better. I think he's getting more of a feel of things. We just have to keep working and seeing constant improvement in him. I think he's had a couple (of his better days of) practice this week."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.