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Defensive Linemen Getting Adjusted

Getting back on the football field this week for the Green Bay Packers' defensive linemen has been a little like going back to school.

"It's a lot of learning," said Ryan Pickett of the new 3-4 defensive scheme. "A lot of learning. It's a lot more complicated than a 4-3 is. There's a lot of different packages, a lot of different stuff that I've never played because I always played in a 4-3 scheme.

"So it's different, but it's exciting. It's going to be some good stuff. We just have to get it all down. Right now it's a grind learning it."

Pickett has begun a month's worth of organized team activities (OTAs) as the starting nose tackle in the middle of the three-man front. During the jog-through opening portion of practice on Thursday, Pickett was flanked by rookie first-round draft pick B.J. Raji at left end and Cullen Jenkins at right end.

With Jenkins still recovering from an offseason procedure to help a nagging bone bruise near his ankle, he didn't participate in the full-speed team periods and was replaced by former first-round pick Justin Harrell on the No. 1 unit. When the defense went to its nickel package, Raji and Johnny Jolly were the two in the middle up front, with a fifth defensive back replacing the third lineman.

All of the primary linemen have adjustments to make, having little to no familiarity with a 3-4 scheme prior to this year, but they all feel they're getting more comfortable with each workout.

With only three down linemen in the base formation, the scheme requires each of them to cover two gaps, so the first move is not to penetrate but to read the play and react accordingly. The trick is to diagnose and attack fast enough to fill the gap they need to before it's too late, and that's not always easy.

"If the guard goes one way, I have to beat him to that side," Pickett said of playing the nose. "It's not just about being big and strong, I have to be quick. I have to be front side every play, and when you're lining up head-up on a guy, that's one of the hardest things to do. You have to read and react fast. That's what they ask you to do."

It's similar for the ends, who need to plug gaps against the run first before they concern themselves with rushing the passer. It's a lot of dirty work that won't show up on the stat sheet, but throughout the offseason program it was stressed to the linemen how valuable their work is.

"It's a position that's real important to the team," Jenkins said. "You're responsible for taking up blockers, holding up gaps for the run. They've put a lot more on our shoulders."

Jenkins has played both tackle and end in the 4-3 scheme, and his versatility will help him get pass-rushing and play-making opportunities in sub packages in this defense. But as far as the base alignment, it will be toiling in anonymity, though the work is very much a necessity.

"You kind of look at it almost like an offensive line type thing," said Jenkins, who is also coming back from a torn pectoral muscle and may not be cleared for full duty until training camp. "It is more of an unselfish position and you really have to think about the team and think about the scheme when you're doing stuff and not try to be selfish and worry about making plays. Just make sure you're holding your responsibilities so the defense can work."

Harrell is just happy to be doing work, period, after what he's been through the past two years. He missed OTAs during his rookie season while recovering from a torn bicep, and then last year a back injury plagued him not only throughout the offseason but during the regular season as well.

After multiple surgeries and seemingly endless rehab, he's finally on the field this week with no restrictions, and making his own transition from tackle in the 4-3 to end in the 3-4.

"It's a big relief," Harrell said of his health, noting he hasn't experienced any problems in his workouts for the past four weeks. "It's been a long time since the back has felt like it's feeling right now. It feels like I never really hurt it. It took a long time, I've seen a lot of doctors, and we finally got it corrected, and we'll try to move on now."

{sportsad300}Admitting that he sees his third NFL season as "one of the biggest years of my life," he says the biggest adjustment to his new position is the footwork. But he's confident that will come along provided he stays healthy this year, which he acknowledged is his No. 1 goal.

"These first couple days of OTAs have been fine, and that was the biggest test -- going out there moving around, hitting and twisting, and doing those things," he said. "The way it's feeling right now, I'm fully confident it's fully healed."

It was an interesting sight when Raji, Pickett and Harrell - three of the largest defensive linemen on the team - were on the field together in the base defense. The three have a combined listed weight of 887 pounds, and that total doesn't drop much if Jenkins or Jolly is in there instead.

There may be a lot to learn, but that's also an awful lot for offensive linemen to handle.

"That's one thing about us, we've got a lot of beef on the line," Harrell said. "But we've got the athleticism and the coaches feel we do, to go out there and still perform at a high level. We're just trying to play.

"It's new, but it's fun. Once we get all the communications and all the corrections, just the understanding and all the quality reps, it's going to be a good defense for us."

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