A Healthy Amount of Depth

The bye week has given the Packers some backup plans along the defensive line, with Justin Harrell, Mike Montgomery and Jason Hunter expected to be ready for Tennessee. Suddenly, a glaring weakness that was exploited by Dallas, Tampa Bay and Atlanta may be bolstered.

Let the defense rest.

Or, at least that's the hope after a bye week that has proven to be the perfect elixir for the Packers' banged-up defensive front four.

During the win against Indianapolis on Oct. 19, defensive ends Mike Montgomery and Jason Hunter were out, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett saw his playing time restricted because of a triceps strain and rookie end Jeremy Thompson was knocked out of the game with a stinger. Throw in the unavailability of defensive tackle Justin Harrell and that starting end Cullen Jenkins is on injured reserve, that meant Colin Cole, Aaron Kampman and Johnny Jolly played the lion's share of the snaps against the Colts.

Montgomery and Hunter are expected to play in Sunday's showdown at Tennessee, Pickett and Thompson say they're healthy and Harrell is expected to make his season debut.

"It helps a lot to have a rotation on the defensive line of guys that can play," said Pickett, who, until the triceps injury, was playing more snaps per game than he had at any level of football. "That allows us to be fresh in the third, fourth quarters. That's big-time help. Hopefully, we get Justin back this week and keep a good rotation, and when it's time to win the game in the fourth quarter, we'll be ready."

Coach Mike McCarthy said the high snap counts for his defensive linemen were not sustainable.

"I think if we would have continued on that path of the number of snaps that the defensive linemen were playing and the rotation that we were using, I think it definitely would have shown up in the second half of our season. I don't think it's a factor right now," McCarthy said.

Pickett disputed the theory that the interior of the Packers' defensive line — made up of just Pickett, Jolly and Cole for the first seven games — became worn down and ineffective late in games.

But, as general manager Ted Thompson likes to say, the proof is in the pudding. The Packers never stopped Dallas' running game in Week 3, and when they needed a late stop in a Week 4 loss to Tampa Bay and a Week 5 setback to Atlanta, the defense couldn't deliver. In Week 4, the Bucs' Earnest Graham rumbled 47 yards to the 1-yard line to set up the clinching touchdown. In Week 5, the Falcons' Michael Turner ran the ball three consecutive times to pick up the clinching first down.

"We haven't been that tired," Pickett said. "It wasn't like, ‘Oh, I'm not going to make it' and fundamentals just go down the drain."

Pickett attributed any end-of-game fatigue to the defense's shortcomings on third down. And while that's undoubtedly true — though it can be argued that was because of the limited numbers — it's also true the Packers rolled to such a strong start to last season in part because of their superb depth up front.

DT Johnny Jolly
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

With Pickett, Jolly and Cole being joined by Corey Williams and, at times, Harrell and/or Daniel Muir, the Packers always had fresh defensive tackles. When Jolly and Cole went down with season-ending injuries and Harrell was sidelined for a few games with an ankle injury, Green Bay lost one of its biggest advantages.

"We had an excellent rotation," Jolly said. "Those guys stayed fresh all game. That's why we rolled last year."

With Harrell expected to be activated this week off of the physically unable to perform list, where he's been since a second back procedure near the end of training camp, the Packers will have actual depth at defensive tackle for the first time this season.

Harrell, who was born in Martin, Tenn., and played collegiately at Tennessee, said he has been pointing to this game since being placed on PUP.

"It's always good to go home, but as far as playing against the Titans, I approach it like every other team in the NFL," Harrell said, noting he didn't grow up cheering for the Titans. "It's a blessing just to play against anybody."

A blessing, indeed. Harrell's disappointing rookie season has been well-documented. He played in only seven regular-season games because of injuries and ineffective play. The whispers of "bust" grew louder when Harrell arrived for the offseason program out of shape and hurt his back.

"It's hard (to stay positive)," the noticeably trimmer Harrell said, "but staying around positive people and just knowing that you've got a lot more football to play and some things to prove, and just not have your career going the way it's going right now."

Getting to practice for a couple of weeks is exactly what Harrell needed after missing all of training camp and the preseason, McCarthy said.

"We talk about getting in football shape, getting in there pushing and pulling and tugging and so forth," McCarthy said. "He just cannot get enough work. We've had two heavy doses of padded practices as far as individual and the team work, so this is exactly what he needs."

McCarthy acknowledged that Harrell needs a full offseason of work to blossom. He hasn't had the benefit of that in Green Bay, where, as a rookie, he was recovering from a torn biceps tendon that ruined his senior season at Tennessee.

"I mean, it definitely helps," McCarthy said. "I think time has shown with our players here that they take advantage of the offseason program and what individuals have been able to accomplish, and Justin is no different. But his path has been a little different. Injuries are part of the game. Some players experience injuries in bunches, that's been his case.

"He looks good, though. This is the best shape that he's been in since he's been with us in Green Bay. So, I'm definitely encouraged with the progress that he's making."

Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com.

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