With age comes a sense of calm.
For months, the Green Bay Packers’ 57-year-old defensive line coach, Mike Trgovac, has been asked the same question again and again: With B.J. Raji stepping away from the sport and with Mike Pennel facing a four-game suspension to start the season, are you worried about the lack of proven depth?
Trgovac’s never wavered from his answer.
“I never worry. I sleep good at night,” he said on Monday.
With youth comes a sense of anxiousness.
For months, 38-year-old Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has been asked a variation of the same question. Behind veteran Sam Shields and the young tandem of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, has anyone emerged to provide quality depth?
“I wish somebody would make it easy and say, ‘Hey, I’m the guy.’ Nobody has,” Whitt said.
Trgovac and Whitt are two of the best coaches at their positions in the NFL. But while strong and surprising depth has emerged at inside linebacker and safety, two positions where difficult cuts await, the Packers will go into the regular season with uncertainty at defensive line and cornerback. Maybe someone will emerge at those positions on Thursday night Kansas City, but if that hasn’t happened through the shorts-and-helmets practices of May and June and the training camp grind of July and August, then it probably won’t happen in the final preseason game of the year.
The situation on the defensive line is particularly bothersome — Trgovac’s no-worries commentary notwithstanding. It’s a drum we’ve banged away on for months. Raji isn’t here. Pennel won’t be here. The additions of first-round pick Kenny Clark and fourth-round pick Dean Lowry work mathematically as a two-for-two switch. But, at this point in their careers, Raji is better than Clark and Pennel is better than Lowry. Clark’s sore back, which kept him out of Friday’s game at San Francisco and could keep him out of the Kansas City game, doesn’t exactly help the situation. Nor has it helped that there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere story, such as Carl Bradford at inside linebacker or Kentrell Brice at safety. Someone has to be the fifth defensive lineman, with 2015 sixth-round pick Christian Ringo and undrafted rookie brawler Brian Price the top candidates. The final player in the mix is another undrafted rookie, Tyler Kuder.
“Just them play. Let them play. Let them see who makes the most plays,” Trgovac said of what he needs to see on Thursday night. “Defense is about getting to the ball, and that’s what we’re going to look for.”
At cornerback, it’s about making plays on the ball. And that’s what Whitt will be looking for vs. Kansas City. Shields and Randall have emerged as the top tandem, Whitt said, with Rollins entering as the third cornerback. But who’s No. 4? It’s a question that can’t be taken lightly, not with Shields missing the equivalent of a full season’s worth of games due to injuries. In his previous six seasons, he’s never gotten through the full 16-game slate.
LaDarius Gunter, who played well when thrust into action vs. Washington in the playoffs, remains the leader in the battle. At this point, he might land the job by default. Robertson Daniel, who gave up big plays against Jordy Nelson and Harvey Binford on Monday, hasn’t risen to the occasion. Undrafted rookie Josh Hawkins has been up and down. Another undrafted rookie, Makinton Dorleant, is sidelined again. Veteran Demetri Goodson, like Pennel, will start the season with a four-game suspension.
“I just want to see them compete,” Whitt said. “I want to see them compete, understand what we’re doing, to show the ability to make plays, show the ability to play fast.”
Whitt, the passionate and superb assistant, spoke for the rest of the staff about the importance of this game. Whether it’s cornerback or defensive line, wide receiver or inside linebacker, jobs could be won or lost vs. Kansas City. The people winning those jobs very well could be playing a major role on the team at some point in the season.
“This is a very important game,” Whitt said. “I may be in the minority. I believe in the preseason because it’s the bottom half of your roster that makes a championship team, in my opinion. That’s what we’re trying to solidify. The year we won the Super Bowl, we had a number of guys — was it 16 guys? — go on injured reserve. It was the bottom half of that roster that helped us win the Super Bowl. We get in that Super Bowl, Sam Shields goes down, Charles Woodson goes down, and we’re in there with Patrick Lee and Jarrett Bush and we win the Super Bowl with Jarrett Bush getting an interception and people playing big. The bottom half of this roster has to show that they can play this week. I’m excited to see it, I really am, because you never know who’s going to really shine from there.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.