For a Packers’ front three that played such an important role in the 2010 playoffs (Raji’s pick six, Green’s pressure turned-pick six), the 2011 defensive line was quite ordinary. The missing piece to the puzzle was obviously pass rushing phenom Cullen Jenkins, who was too expensive to resign in the offseason. Clearly, Ted Thompson had no idea how anemic the pass rush up front would be without Jenkins.
With defensive end Mike Neal still nursing a 2010 knee injury, the Packers opened 2011 in classic Thompson-like form: whoever sat behind Neal on the depth chart was now the starter. Three-year vet Jarius Wynn teased fans with a surprisingly impressive opener against the Saints – and then proceeded to play like the sixth round end that had him watching from the sidelines for most of his time in Green Bay.
When Neal finally found the playing field, the former Boilermaker was mostly ineffective in getting to the quarterback, failing to register a single sack in seven games. Neal’s counterpart from the 2010 draft, C.J. Wilson, also turned in a disappointing 2011 after turning some heads in the Super Bowl. The inadequate play of both second-year veterans casts a cloudy picture over the future at defensive end.
Veterans Ryan Pickett and Howard Green experienced quiet seasons – especially Green, who had emerged as a very capable backup in 2010. Perhaps the biggest head scratcher on the defensive line was B.J. Raji and his oddly pedestrian play. Without the threat of Jenkins at his side, Raji had trouble generating pressure on his own (which, for the record, should never be expected out of a nose tackle).
Not all things went sour for Mike Trgovac’s big men. The unit managed to shut down the run fairly consistently, minus a couple poor outings. The line’s stellar play versus the run forced teams into a one dimensional, passing mode by the second half. To be fair, the Packers were not left with a ton of talent in the positional group after Jenkins’ departure.
Though the Packers got a pro bowler out of Raji, the D-line’s all-around performance in 2011 was just so-so. Should coaches and fans have expected much more out of a unit that saw the vast majority of its pass rush travel to Philadelphia in the offseason? The defensive line was just average and may remain that way until someone can fill the void left by Jenkins.