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Packers’ running game gets off to solid start

Posted Aug 15, 2015

Young DL Mike Pennel increasing his value on defense

GREEN BAY – The Packers’ ground game was a steady, productive presence in the preseason opener on Thursday, and it began right away.

The first time Eddie Lacy was handed the ball, he rumbled for 15 yards. He went for 15 more on his second carry.

A couple of short-yardage and red-zone hiccups were frustrating for the first unit, to be sure, but the No. 1 line set the tone for how the Packers want to run the ball on a consistent basis.

“It was nice. Eddie came out firing, we came out blocking pretty well,” right guard T.J. Lang said following Saturday’s practice. “You always like to see your team get off to a fast start. We talk about being well-balanced, being able to pass protect and being able to run the ball. We moved the ball pretty effectively there in the first quarter.”

Lang credited new assistant offensive line coach Mike Solari for his input, as Solari has taken over the unit during James Campen’s absence for a personal matter.

Solari has shown some of the veterans new techniques, Lang said, so the learning never stops. He also has tested their fundamentals with a new apparatus the players must stay underneath while they block during certain drills.

“From watching the game film on the iPad, it looked like everybody was playing with pretty good pad level up front,” Lang said. “I think it’s something that’s helped us out.”

It carried over to the reserve units when the younger running backs got their chances, too. In what is shaping up as a tight race for the No. 3 spot, Rajion Neal, Alonzo Harris and John Crockett combined for 82 yards on 21 carries, with Harris’ 25-yard TD run around the left side the top highlight.

“I thought the runners ran well. They ran smart,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “From a decision standpoint, there were definitely some reads you can coach off of and teach off of. They ran with body lean and did a good job of yards after contact. I thought the running back group had a good night.”

The No. 1 offensive line was not at full strength on Saturday, as starting left tackle David Bakhtiari sat out practice with a knee injury. Don Barclay took his place on the first unit.

On the defensive line, the mountainous Mike Pennel continues to be a player to watch. Active in Thursday’s game with a tackle for loss to his credit, the 6-4, 332-pound Pennel appears to be expanding his game.

On Saturday, with Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion still out with injuries and Josh Boyd (knee) added to that list, Pennel took snaps with the first-team defense at end, next to nose tackle B.J. Raji.

Normally on the nose, Pennel believes he can play end as well once he gets a full grasp of the assignments and enough reps to get accustomed to another spot.

“The difference is there’s a little more space, a little less margin for error when you’re out there,” he said. “You have to make sure your tempo, your feet are right, your hands are right. You have to be more fundamentally sound out there.”

The Colorado State-Pueblo product who came to Green Bay as an undrafted rookie last year could be a key defender up front for the Packers in his second season, particularly early on with suspensions pending for Guion and Datone Jones.

Pennel played a ton of snaps in Thursday’s game and held up well throughout, another positive sign following an offseason during which his main goal was to improve his conditioning.

“I made a couple plays and felt good about it, but I just want to build off of that,” he said. “My mindset now is to get through this camp and make this team.”

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