Having been one of those guys – one of those little-known backups thrust into action, perhaps before he was truly ready – Mike Daniels knows the drill.
Now entering his third season – and, in the wake of B.J. Raji’s season-ending torn biceps muscle, the Green Bay Packers defensive line’s elder statesman – Daniels isn’t the least bit worried that the team will be forced to go with a nose tackle-by-committee approach with Raji’s year now over.
After all, Daniels was down the depth chart in 2012 as a rookie fourth-round pick before emerging as the season went on, then developed into a key player on defense last year.
His expectation is that undrafted rookie free agent Mike Pennel, second-year man Josh Boyd and veteran Letroy Guion, who signed with the team as a free agent in March, will do the same while replacing Raji.
“It’s football. The guys on the second string, they don’t just sit around all day. They’re preparing and training as well,” Daniels said Monday. “I didn’t get my first snaps until people started going down – and you know how that turned out. It’s just another opportunity for somebody else to really show what they’re made of, and I think we have the guys to show some good things.”
Although the Packers don’t play their base 3-4 defense all that much – last year they spent less than 25 percent of their defensive snaps in their base “Okie” package – nose tackle is still an important job for a defense that finished 25th in run defense and 29th in yards allowed per carry last season. Since the day he arrived in 2009, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has said repeatedly that his defense starts with stopping the run, which allows him to get more creative with his pass-rush packages because it puts the down-and-distances in the defense’s favor. Given the creativity he plans to show in getting after the quarterback this season, Capers is banking on Guion, Boyd and Pennel setting the table by helping improve the run defense – something that a reinvigorated Raji, back at his natural position on the nose, appeared ready to do after a very strong camp.
“You don’t ever want to lose one of your guys. B.J. has been with us [a long time]. This is his sixth season and has played a lot of football for us,” Capers said Monday. “But we know – and we certainly know around here – that on any given play, you can lose a guy and the next guy has to step up and do the job. So guys like Josh Boyd, Letroy Guion – you know those guys have to step up and fill the void that B.J. leaves.”
And there is a void. The Packers open regular-season play on Sept. 4 at Seattle, where the defending Super Bowl-champion Seahawks’ offense is driven by running back Marshawn Lynch, who was sixth in the NFL in rushing last year (1,257 yards). Seattle ranked fourth in the league in yards per game last season (136.8) and tied for 12th in yards per rush (4.3).
“When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, your mindset is always [to not react] too much one way or the other,” Capers said of getting the news of Raji’s injury. “That’s the nature of the game. … Then you have to pick things up and get the next guy ready and move on.”
Guion, a seventh-year pro who was released by the Minnesota Vikings after last season and signed a one-year deal with the Packers in March, started camp on the non-football injury list after pulling his hamstring while working out on his own before camp opened. He was activated Monday and took part in his first practice of camp, but he may not see any action in Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City at Lambeau Field.
“It felt good to be back out there with the guys, running around, doing some movement. Just getting back in the mix of things, in the environment,” Guion said. “I don’t know if I’m going to play in the game yet. They haven’t really gave me the go-ahead, but I’ll be waiting to see. It will be exciting to go this weekend if I can.
“I’ve got some experience under me and I’ve played this game for a while. I know to prepare myself, and get mentally prepared to go out there and beat some offense up.”
Boyd, meanwhile, emerged late in his rookie season last year, seeing increased playing time down the stretch. While more natural as a three-technique tackle or end, the coaches believe he has what it takes to play the nose, and that’s where he lined up after Raji departed Friday night’s game against Oakland.
“This offseason, I was preparing just to give this team more, try to give them more. With this (injury to Raji), I have to step up. I’ve been preparing for it and I’m ready for it,” said Boyd, who played 117 snaps last year – but 80 of them in the final four games. “I’ve always been a guy who could play pretty much all the positions. So it really doesn’t matter. The best place they need me is where I’ll play. So I’m very comfortable with anything.
“I was a two-year starter in college (at Mississippi State) at the nose, and then after one of my teammates left, they moved me to the three-tech. I played a little bit of everything, so it doesn’t really matter to me. Whatever they need me to do.”
Pennel, who started his college career at Arizona State but ended up at Colorado-Pueblo after differences with the Sun Devils’ coaching staff, probably was on his way to a roster spot even before Raji’s injury but now must grow up in a hurry.
“I thought he had some big-time plays in the game with Oakland and he had some plays where you can see his youth,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He just needs to be more experienced in the technical aspect of it. Mike’s getting better.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.