The Packers will start their third player in as many games at nose tackle with the surprising news that last week's starter, James Lee, underwent knee surgery Wednesday to repair torn cartilage in his left knee. He will be out 4-6 weeks.
Lee got the start Sunday against Chicago after opening-day starter Grady Jackson dislocated his left knee cap three snaps into his season the week before. Lee said he heard a "crunch" in his knee early in the game but he continued playing. On Monday, the Packers said Lee had a sprained knee. A magnetic resonance imaging exam, however, revealed the damage.
The candidates to start at nose tackle Sunday at Indianapolis are Cullen Jenkins and Cletidus Hunt. Jenkins, a first-year player, is eager but a little light in the shorts at 292 pounds. Hunt is the starting eagle tackle. If he starts at nose, then Kenny Peterson likely would take Hunt's spot. Peterson, for his part, missed the first two games with a sprained ankle and injured knee.
While all of the above are capable players, none are Grady Jackson. Jackson almost single-handedly led to a dramatic turnaround in the defense last season. Signed at midseason, the Packers allowed 117 rushing yards per game before Jackson and just 94 after the signing. The better run defense, in turn, led to a 10-points-per-game improvement.
"Not unless one of those guys puts on about 50 pounds fast," defensive coordinator Bob Slowik said when asked if Jenkins, Peterson, Hunt or even 320-pound practice-squad player Colin Cole can replace Jackson. "I mean, you can't replace Grady Jackson. And so, the guys that go in there do what they do best and we've got to try to utilize their strengths and everything that they do to the best of their ability."
Jenkins received a pass grade from the coaching staff after playing about 25 snaps against Chicago. Still, at some 60 pounds less than Jackson, Jenkins expects to be run at early and often by Indianapolis on Sunday.
"Especially being an undersized D-tackle, as everyone wants to call me," Jenkins said. "If they want to come at me, then so be it. I just have to be ready for it."
Peterson, meanwhile, is just happy to be back after missing the first two games. During training camp, Sherman pointed to Peterson as one of the team's most-improved players.
"I hate being on the sideline. I hate being out. I hate being a spectator," the 295-pound, second-year Peterson said. "Being injured, that's what you are — a spectator — and that's not my game."
As for Smith, he was a valuable player last season but injured his thigh midway through training camp this summer and never returned to practice. He was released Sept. 5, and may not be healthy enough to help immediately. Brown, meanwhile, said last week after Jackson was sidelined that he had not been contacted by Sherman.
The mess at defensive tackle only compounds the Packers' problems stopping the run. One week after stopping Carolina cold, the Bears piled up 184 yards on the ground Sunday. With the Packers lacking bulk in the middle and counting on the likes of a lightweight Jenkins, a shifted Hunt, a recovering Peterson and a rookie Corey Williams to play a lot of snaps, Sunday's game at Indianapolis poses a huge challenge.
Colts running back Edgerrin James is second in the league in rushing through two weeks. While he's slowed by a hamstring and is questionable to play Sunday, his backup, Dominic Rhodes, topped 1,100 yards rushing as a rookie in 2001 when James was out with a season-ending knee injury. In 10 starts, Rhodes rushed for 961 yards, with games of 100, 104, 126, 141 and 177 yards.
Regardless of who starts at running back, the Packers' defensive emphasis will be on stopping the run — not superstar quarterback Peyton Manning.
"Peyton Manning is going to be Peyton Manning. Their wideouts are just outstanding," Slowik said. "I mean, their whole offense is just a juggernaut right now what they're doing with the football. And we've got to start somewhere and stopping the run is really where you always got to start."
Besides Jackson and Lee, players missing practice Wednesday were starting center Mike Flanagan (knee), backup running back Najeh Davenport (hamstring), backup fullback Nick Luchey (groin). Jackson and Lee are out for Sunday, Davenport is questionable and Flanagan and Luchey are probable.
Flanagan's being held out of practice will be common for the rest of the season as the Packers try to manage the tendinitis in his left knee. With the Packers playing on artificial turf Sunday, the Packers have elected to keep Flanagan's work to a minimum this week.
Jackson, meanwhile, pushed back his projected return date. After saying last week that he hoped to return in 2-3 weeks, Jackson on Wednesday said he would miss at last three more games.