D-Line Uses Depth, Teamwork To Maintain Steady Impact


Defensive end Aaron Kampman isn't exactly sure why the Packers' defensive line is playing as well as it is right now.

"I don't know," he said. "I can't put my finger on it."

The lack of a ready-made explanation from the NFL's sack leader is probably an indication of two things.

First, it's not as though the defensive line has come out of nowhere to make an impact lately. The unit has seen a boost in sacks in recent weeks but has been pretty steady all season long and seems to keep improving with each passing week, a progression that doesn't lend itself to obvious explanations.

Second, it could be a sign that much of the unit's success is due to chemistry and cohesion amongst the linemates, attributes that generally go unspoken and develop without the players saying or thinking much about them.

"We've just been plugging away," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "We're getting to know each other better and we're starting to work together better."

As simple as that sounds, that's probably as good an explanation as any. With the way the Packers rotate defensive linemen throughout a game - Michael Montgomery regularly subs in at end for either Kampman or Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, while defensive tackles Pickett, Corey Williams, Colin Cole and Cullen Jenkins (who recently returned from an ankle injury) take their turns in the middle - learning each individual's tendencies becomes all the more important and can take a little longer than a group that plays the same four players every down.

"From the rotation we've got going, whoever you put in there can play, and I feel like ... we're more used to what each other is going to do," Williams said. "In the beginning of the season, we weren't sure if this guy gets out of his lane, what's this guy going to do. Now we're pretty much reading off each other."

That chemistry has helped the defensive line's production in terms of what gets noticed most - sacks. Linemen have accounted for 9 1/2 of the defense's 13 sacks over the past three games.

It's worth noting how often those sacks, even though they're usually attributed to one player, result from the group effort on the line.

Many times this season, the interior of the defensive line has gotten a strong push, flushing the quarterback outside where Kampman or Gbaja-Biamila are there for the sack. The converse is true as well, which helped Williams record a career-best three-sack game at Buffalo last week.

"With the ends, Kamp and Kabeer, they do a great job of getting upfield and making the quarterback step up to us," Williams said. "I got two of my sacks because the ends had great rush and they made the quarterback step up, and that's when the interior guys have to be there to make the play."

{sportsad300}The group has remained effective against the run as well, allowing 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, good for third in the NFC and eighth in the NFL.

They'll get a significant challenge this week in Minnesota running back Chester Taylor, who likes to run behind the sizable left side of his offensive line in guard Steve Hutchinson (6-foot-5, 313 pounds) and tackle Bryant McKinnie (6-8, 335). Taylor ranks fourth in the NFL with 708 rushing yards and has the season's longest run, a 95-yarder for a touchdown against Seattle.

In addition to slowing down Taylor and keeping up its sack numbers, the defensive line would also like to create some turnovers this week. It's probably no coincidence that the Packers' two most frustrating losses this season - to St. Louis and Buffalo - were two games in which the defense didn't get a turnover.

Because so many turnovers result from pressure on the quarterback, who may lose the ball while getting sacked or force an early throw into tight coverage, the defensive linemen always have an opportunity to make a big impact in that area. They can't necessarily control whether a quarterback makes a bad throw or holds onto the ball, but the idea is to stay after him and eventually a big mistake can occur.

"You always hope you get some turnovers, the strip sacks, throwing into coverage, or whatever it may be," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said. "Hopefully we'll continue to rip at the ball and get back on that, because we definitely need to get some turnovers.

"Certainly if the pressure stays the same I think we'll get our share."

And they'll continue to share the credit as well.

"I think since Day 1, we've always stated that our defensive line is probably our most talented position, and I think it's the position that has the most depth," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "I just think you're seeing a group that's getting better and better each week, so their productivity is no surprise."

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