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Can Mike Daniels lead a Packers defensive revival?

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After a breakout 2013, can Mike Daniels take the next step in his development and reverse the Packers' fortunes on defense?

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Mike Daniels was accustomed to delivering gut punches, not receiving them. As a two-way player in high school, he buried opponents under 25 sacks and over 200 tackles while galloping for 2,203 yards and 25 touchdowns on offense. In college, Daniels helped push the Iowa Hawkeyes to a top 10 ranking in team defense for three consecutive years. So when his current team limped to the finish line of the 2013 season, he had to speak up.

"If something has to be said, I'm going to say it," Daniels warned during July minicamp. "If somebody has a problem with it, we're grown men. We play a violent game. We get paid to be violent. So why not? If you deck somebody in the locker room because you have a disagreement, there's not going to be any sensitivity training."

Daniels is taking steps to ensure that Green Bay is the pusher this season, not the pushee.


What has Daniels riled up is the state of the Packers' defense. In his view, the unit needs an attitude adjustment, a meaner disposition. With his no-nonsense approach, Daniels is taking steps to ensure that Green Bay is the pusher this season, not the pushee. In doing so, he's establishing himself as a team leader, filling a vacuum created 17 months earlier when the Packers released veteran defensive back Charles Woodson.

Daniels' words are backed by an impressive 2013 campaign. While the players around him rotated in and out due to injury and ineffectiveness, Daniels lived in opponents' backfields, compiling 6 1/2 sacks along the way. The Packers will lean on him even more as they attempt to resurrect a defense that last season allowed the 25th most yards and 24th most points.

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Multiple factors determine the effectiveness of an NFL defense and, ultimately, whether one is of championship caliber. The quality of coaching, creativity of scheme, and overall health each play a part. Yet more often than not, defensive success is driven by the quality of the personnel. Players on the field need to execute, and the teams with superior talent usually do.

A review of the Packers' last three Super Bowl teams reveals a commonality that underscores this point: all feature rosters laden with defensive All-Pros and playmakers. Three All-Pros highlight 2010's unit, with the 1996 and '97 squads each counting four among their ranks. Field tilters like Desmond Bishop and Gilbert Brown further bolstered those defenses. It should come as no surprise then that the Packers finished in the top five for points allowed each of those years. Superior talent begets superior performance.

If the 2014 Packers hope to become Green Bay's latest Super Bowl squad, it appears they have some ground to make up on defense.

The unit is headlined by All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews. His injury struggles are well documented, but Matthews remains one of the league's most feared edge rushers when healthy. To help alleviate his burden, the Packers made a rare free agency splash by signing Julius Peppers. Peppers may no longer induce night terrors in left tackles, but he'll see fewer double and triple teams playing opposite of Matthews. An uptick in performance should come as a result. While not an All-Pro, Casey Hayward tilts the field with instinctive play and turnover creation.

But with Peppers converting to linebacker, the roster lacks a dominating presence on the front lines, a defender capable of harassing multiple offensive linemen on every snap. The 2010 Packers had Cullen Jenkins, a pesky interior rusher who finished second on the team in sacks despite not playing a position conducive to big pass rush numbers. Green Bay's Super Bowl defenses of the 90s featured a towering, barrel-chested brute in Santana Dotson. Both savored bursting the bubble of protection that is the quarterback's pocket, and both were linchpins to their team's postseason success.

Daniels enters 2014 as the Packers' most experienced full-time defensive end.


And that is precisely what the Packers hope to find in Mike Daniels. He has already proven capable of pressuring the quarterback as a part-time player in 2013 -- according to Pro Football Focus, Daniels played 553 of the team's 1137 defensive snaps, or 48.6% -- but he must maintain his level of play while taking on an expanded role this year. Green Bay elected to let former starter Ryan Pickett depart, shifting B.J. Raji over to nose tackle as his replacement. As a result, Daniels enters 2014 as the Packers' most experienced full-time defensive end. With that distinction comes greater responsibility. Daniels will see more double teams and chip blocks, as teams no longer can afford to leave him in one-on-one situations. Whether he overcomes those obstacles may well determine how successful the defense can become.

The goods news for the Packers is that recent precedent suggests Daniels will flourish in his third season. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati's 6-1 303-pound defensive tackle, not only resembles Daniels in build, but he also mirrors Daniels' trajectory through his first two seasons. As a rookie, Atkins played fewer than 400 snaps, contributing mostly on passing downs while steadily increasing his playing time as the year wore on. Atkins more than doubled his snap count in his second season and, like Daniels, established himself as the defensive line's leading pass rusher.

However, it wasn't until 2012, Atkins' third year in the league, that the defensive tackle truly blossomed. Playing 75% of the Bengals' defensive snaps, Atkins racked up 12 1/2 sacks along with 13 more quarterback hits and 53 hurries on his way to earning first-team All-Pro honors. Only Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt had a more impressive season for a defensive lineman.

The purpose of comparing Mike Daniels to Geno Atkins isn't to suggest that the Packers' defensive end is destined to become a first-team All-Pro in 2014—that's an unfair expectation for any young player. Rather, Atkins' 2012 campaign demonstrates that, even after a substantial year-two jump, another major leap is possible for talented defensive linemen with the requisite work ethic and attitude.

Mike Daniels wants to improve so badly that he threatens violence against teammates who won't follow his lead. That might not make for a healthy emotional complex, but it does drive a player to reach his potential. If Daniels can indeed hit his ceiling, the Packers will have their field tilter on the defensive line and, perhaps, a defensive revival along with it.

Then finally the gut punches will cease, and Daniels can deliver a few of his own.

Jason B. Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. He also serves as an SB Nation newsdesk contributor and NFL writer for Sports on Earth.