The stats say defensive end Michael Montgomery played well, and the film backed up that assessment.
"The way the stats was, that's how he played," defensive ends coach Carl Hairston said on Monday, the day after the Packers' 19-16, overtime loss at undefeated Tennessee. "He played hard and played physical. I'm glad to see him come back like that."
Montgomery got the first crack at replacing Cullen Jenkins when the standout suffered a season-ending injury to a pectoral, but exited his first career start with a sprained ankle against Atlanta. Montgomery missed the next two games before returning Sunday, when, by Hairston's count, Montgomery tallied nine tackles and four assists to go along with his sack and near-interception.
"It was the same old Mike," Hairston said. "That's how he plays. That's how Mike plays. He hustles to the ball. He's a very aggressive player. That's him. That's Mike's nature. He's going to make a lot of plays like that."
The 6-foot-5, 273-pound Montgomery is in his fourth season out of Texas A&M. The sixth-round pick had six sacks during his senior season, but never blossomed during his first three seasons in Green Bay. Last year, a knee injury sustained in the preseason limited him to 15 tackles, seven assists and no sacks in nine games.
Sunday, however, was a different story, with Montgomery piling up a game high in tackles while playing a whopping 51 snaps. The Titans' left guard, Eugene Amano, barely laid a hand on Montgomery as he turned a quick swim move into an easy sack. Montgomery almost had an interception when he dropped into coverage on a zone blitz.
"Mike is a tough guy. Mike is a physical guy," Packers coach Mike Montgomery said. "He is a guy that plays with excellent leverage if you look at his body type and the way that he is built. He played pretty well (Sunday). He had a couple of contain issues that he actually responded very well (on). His ability to drop into coverage and he had an excellent opportunity for an interception there (that) says a lot about his ability as a defensive end."
Assuming he's retained — Montgomery will be an unrestricted free agent after this season — he has all the ingredients to be a solid performer for many years. His long arms came into play on the near-interception, and his athletic ability was evident when he tracked down speedy rookie running back Chris Johnson from the far side of the field in the first quarter. Plus, he can fill in at defensive tackle in a pinch.
"If you've got a guy with that much versatility, that's a big plus for your defense," Hairston said. "We've just got to keep using him and get him more healthy. He played well yesterday. I'm proud of him."
Rookie Jeremy Thompson made his third consecutive start, though Montgomery played a lot more snaps. Thompson has failed to build on his strong play from his first career start, so Montgomery likely will get the nod next week at Minnesota.
"Still a little hesitant," Hairston said of Thompson. "He's just got to learn to get past that point, and once he gets past that point, he'll be OK. He's just got to know how to be more consistent with that instead of thinking too much. He's just got to start playing, like he did against Seattle. I've got to get him back to playing like that."
Having a healthy Montgomery and Jason Hunter, plus Thompson, made veteran Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila expendable last week when the Packers had to make a roster move to activate defensive tackle Justin Harrell. The Packers' career leading in sacks had just one sack this season and failed to record a quarterback pressure since Week 2, his explosive first step failing to return after offseason knee surgery.
The Packers felt the potential in Montgomery, Hunter and Kenny Pittway, all 25, and Thompson, 23, was more valuable than holding out hope the 31-year-old Gbaja-Biamila would return to form that let him rack up 11 sacks (including playoffs) last year.
"We feel we have good depth at the defensive end spot," McCarthy said. "They are young as a group, so the ability to improve is important for that group. I think Jeremy Thompson just continues to improve with every rep that he gets. The coaches were real excited about the way he played in the Indianapolis game and progressed through the week of practice. He has shown improvement. It's good to have Jason Hunter back from the hamstring injury. It was a lot longer than we expected. I know it is good to have him back on special teams also. Pettway has done a really good job for us on special teams and also has the ability to be a speed rusher. It's a group that we feel we can continue to develop."
Gbaja-Biamila's presence will be missed, even with his minimal production. His proclivity for locker-room banter made him a favorite among teammates.
"To move a guy like that, with leadership ability and helping the young guys, it hurts you for awhile, but somebody eventually will pick up where Kabeer left off," Hairston said. "But he's also my friend. He's a good guy to have around and be around."
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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