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Packers' defensive line ready to step up

Green Bay looks within to replace injured Muhammad Wilkerson

DL Dean Lowry
DL Dean Lowry

GREEN BAY – It was a somber trip back from Washington D.C. for Mike Daniels and the rest of the Packers' defensive line on Sunday evening.

Independent of the team's 31-17 loss at FedExField, Daniels had to come to terms with the sight of the empty seat next to him on the team charter to Green Bay.

It's a spot typically reserved for his close friend and linemate, Muhammad Wilkerson, who was held back at a D.C. area hospital after being carted off the field with an ankle injury at the two-minute warning in the first half.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that the two-time All-Pro defensive lineman required a procedure in the hours after the game, and while no specific timelines were given, McCarthy confirmed the injury is believed to be "significant."

It's a tough blow for a defensive line that had big plans for Wilkerson, who played 92 defensive snaps (64.3 percent) across the line of scrimmage in the first two games of the season.

"You never want to see anybody go down, you don't want to see your worst enemy go down out there," Daniels said. "So when you see one of your buddies go down, that makes it even worse. Mo and I are pretty close. I texted him and let him know that I've got family out here, so he'll be well taken care of whatever he needs. That's my brother there."

After lamenting the loss of his fellow New Jerseyan, Daniels acknowledged it's up to "the original four" of himself, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams to step up in Wilkerson's absence.

All homegrown, drafted-and-developed prospects, that quartet lies at the core of the Packers' defense. Daniels, now in his seventh NFL season, is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, while Clark has picked up right where he left off in 2017.

The former first-round pick leads the defensive line with 16 tackles, a sack and two pass deflections through the first three games. He played 56 of the 61 defensive snaps (91.8 percent) in Washington and has played 165 of 204 (80.9 percent) on the season.

So far, the 22-year-old has no issue whatsoever with that workload.

"I mean, I want to be out there on the field every play if I could," Clark said. "If that's what's asked of me, I can. I'm not going to ever say no. If I had the choice, I'd be out there every play if I could."

While Daniels and Clark consistently have make their impact felt inside over the years, the most likely candidate to fill Wilkerson's role is third-year defensive lineman Dean Lowry.

A fourth-round pick in the same 2016 draft that netted Clark, Lowry recorded 32 tackles, two sacks and two pass deflections in 16 regular-season games (11 starts) last year.

At 6-foot-6, 296 pounds, Lowry can play five-technique defensive end in the Packers' base and sub-base packages and also is versatile enough to move inside as a three-technique defensive tackle in the nickel and dime.

"Mo's a really good player and we definitely are going to miss him, but we've got the most confidence in Dean," Clark said. "Dean was a starter last year, played a lot of football and he's played a lot this year. We're not concerned about losing Mo and having Dean come in. Dean's been doing a great job since he got here, so we're not worried about it."

Lowry took a backseat in the first two games, playing 33 of 109 defensive snaps (23.1 percent), before getting on the field 24 times defensively in relief of Wilkerson in Washington.

"I didn't play as much as I wanted to, but I made the most of my opportunities," said Lowry, who has five tackles this season. "I felt good out there. That's the plan going forward. Now it's going to be a bigger role, so I just have to make sure I'm ready for the moment."

The Packers likely could ask second-year defensive lineman Montravius Adams to assume more responsibility as well. A third-round pick out of Auburn last year, Adams played sparingly in seven games as a rookie after a foot injury sidelined him through most of training camp.

The 6-foot-4, 304-pound defensive tackle was healthy for the entire summer, showing natural explosiveness and strength at the point of attack early in training camp.

"Guys just have to step up," Clark said. "We have full confidence in all those guys. It's hard to see one of your brothers go down. Mo being in our room and him being a great teammate, seeing him go down was crazy. But we have to just step up."

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