A year and a half ago, Ted Thompson let Cullen Jenkins leave for the Philadelphia Eagles. During the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl run, he was the team's most consistent lineman and was a significant contributor to the team's run and pass defense. A natural fit for the 3-4, Jenkins started to excel when Dom Capers joined the Packers, but as soon as he had his best ever year in green and gold, he was gone.
Jenkins was a constant topic of conversation last season, but Thompson's lack of willingness to re-sign him at the price he fetched from Philly is understandable. He's currently 31-years-old, and the Eagles had to re-structure his deal to fit him under the cap this season. This is your regular reminder that the Philadelphia Eagles organization is a dumpster fire.
Last season, without Jenkins, the Packers' defensive line simply wasn't good enough. Mike Neal was consistently injured, while Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson were adequate, to be kind to them. Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji were both overworked on a line with no depth. Their lack of push meant that Clay Matthews got double teamed on every third down, and they were regularly decimated by runs up the middle. There was no doubt coming into the season that the Packers' defensive line needed to improve, and Jenkins was not going to walk through the door.
The defensive line positions were addressed through the draft and the signing of a variety of street free agents. None of the latter group remains. This is last year's group, minus Wynn, plus two rookies.
For the most part, it's worked out for the Packers. Given their needs for players at other positions and current financial constraints -- as well as the lack of quality 3-4 linemen available in free agency -- Thompson's lack of drastic action at the defensive line positions is understandable. The players that the Packers have on the roster have been adequate, but they still leave a bit to be desired.
First, the positives. Raji has certainly been more effective this season with a bit more help around him, even if he's not looking like the dominant player he was during Green Bay's Super Bowl run. He's performed very well as a space-eater, and he allows A.J. Hawk and his revolving door of partners to make tackles more easily, both by eating up blockers and slowing up running backs. As a collective unit, the defensive line has 8.5 of the team's 28 sacks, which is solid for a 3-4 defense. Those 28 sacks are good for second in the league. Wilson's improved play and the presence of Jerel Worthy has made things easier for Clay Matthews. The defensive line's improved play is also a lot of why the Packers are a solid 10th in the league in both YPC against and rushing yards per game against.
However, Raji's inability to get back to his 2010 level of performance is concerning. The team has to make a decision very soon about whether or not to sign him to a very lucrative contract, and his adequate, but not stellar play makes that decision an extremely difficult one. Raji is not as good as anyone expected him to be, but he will also be extremely difficult to replace. Most expected a much better season out of him, and what we've received are performances that are just good enough.
Between Raji's performance and the rotating, but persistent nagging injuries affecting Mike Daniels, Neal and Worthy, we haven't seen the best version of the Packers' line this year. I don't know if we're going to see it at all. If all six Packers linemen can get healthy, they have a very solid unit that can rotate enough to avoid fatigue while helping the defense in all aspects of the game, but that simply hasn't happened yet. It feels like the defensive line is treading water.
Overall grade for the defensive line: B-
Perhaps this is harsh, but I have very high expectations for this group. All six active players have, individually, put together at least one fantastic performance this year, but the line has not had a single collectively dominant game. As a unit, they need to improve. Hopefully the bye week has everyone rested and healthy, ready to terrorize the Lions.