GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s not the first time this season the Packers have been shorthanded along their defensive line, but that doesn’t make the challenge any easier to overcome.
Heading into Sunday’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay will have only three healthy players up front. Rookie Jerel Worthy is out with a concussion, and Mike Neal and B.J. Raji have both been limited due to ankle injuries.
“We’ve tried to monitor the reps up front,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday. “You need that kind of depth because up front you’re going to have guys get banged up and you’re going to be missing some. You can get short (on players) in a hurry.
“You just have to factor that in in terms of what you’re going to do and how much four-down linemen you’re going to play out there with the big guys.”
The Packers began the season playing their first four games without Neal due to an NFL suspension. But at that time, the team still had Phillip Merling on its roster to keep the number of active defensive linemen at six. Merling was released after Neal’s suspension was over.
Raji missed Weeks 6 and 7 after twisting his left ankle, and defensive end C.J. Wilson missed Week 2 with a groin injury.
Though Neal is listed as probable for Sunday’s game, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be ready to play a significant number of snaps after a week of limited practices.
But even if Green Bay has to get by with a depleted group this weekend, there is a bye week immediately following it to rest up.
“We’ll be a little more tired, probably,” veteran Ryan Pickett said of playing shorthanded. “So we need to keep the long drives down. That’s about it. We’ve done it before. Now we just have to muscle up.”
The injuries shouldn’t take away any of the main defensive packages the Packers have been using this season. Capers has had his defense spending a lot of time in dime and nickel, while using his base 3-4 okie package on running downs. On some occasions, such as last Sunday’s game against Jacksonville, Capers has used four defensive linemen on the field at one time. Those sub packages may not be possible now given the current health of the group.
“It’s just a new guy goes into the spot,” Pickett said. It’s not going to change anything we do defensively. We’re still going to run everything we have with our four guys. I think there’s like two packages where there’s all four of us out there.
“We’ll be fine. We just have to make sure we don’t let them get the long drives going. If we do our job, that shouldn’t happen.”
This will also likely present an opportunity for rookie fourth-round pick Mike Daniels to play increased snaps. Daniels has been in for only 85 of the defense’s 584 plays this season.
“Mike’s a typical young guy,” Capers said. “What you have to do with these young guys is you have to keep them practicing and keep them playing and keep preparing and they get better. Obviously, you gain confidence in him as a coach, you see it on the practice field. I think he’s taking that step-by-step process that you do as a young guy.
“He’s got more reps (in practice this week) because with Jerel being out, Mike Neal being limited in practice, all of a sudden, if you don’t have those guys, then he becomes more of a focus in a lot of your game plan stuff.
“Mike’s a little different style guy. He can do some things in our sub packages and all that.”
The Packers are catching a bit of a break in that they’re facing the NFL’s second-worst rushing team. The Cardinals have lost running back Ryan Williams for the season with a left shoulder injury, and Beanie Wells is on injured reserve (with a designation to return in Week 12) due to a toe injury. That leaves Arizona with LaRod Stephens-Howling, who has had a terrible season with the exception of one game. Stephens-Howling is averaging 2.6 yards per carry and is coming off a performance in a loss to San Francisco in which he had six yards in eight carries.
“This is the biggest game of the year so far for us,” Pickett said. “It’s big. You got a chance to get some momentum before the bye week. This is an important game. They had a hiccup the last couple weeks, they had injuries and things like that, but a very talented team.
“We know we’re going to get their best shot and they’re going to get our best shot.”