GREEN BAY – There's no way the Packers aren't going to feel the loss of Mike Daniels on the defensive front.
His absence was evident right away two weeks ago when, just after Daniels exited the Seattle game with a foot injury, the Seahawks killed the final four minutes, 11 seconds of their victory with four consecutive runs for a pair of first downs.
But given a little more time to settle into their new roles, second-year pro Montravius Adams and undrafted rookie Tyler Lancaster upped their impact last Sunday at Minnesota, and that bodes well for a defensive line that doesn't know when, or if, it'll get Daniels back in 2018.
"It's tough to replace a guy of his physicality in there, the way he affects the run game, especially some of those one-on-one blocks," outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. "He's pretty disruptive up there. It's difficult to replace but at the same time I thought we did a pretty good job holding them in the run game. For the most part, I thought we held our own within the front seven."
The Vikings averaged just a shade over three yards per carry despite Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's pregame insistence on running the ball more. Adams and Lancaster were especially noticeable on a few short-yardage plays.
Late in the first half, the 6-foot-4, 304-pound Adams shed his blocker to help stop Latavius Murray for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1, and the Vikings missed a field goal on the next play. Adams went on to record three tackles on the night, the first multi-tackle game of his young career.
"Our coaches say when you feel comfortable in the scheme, you can take a chance and try to make a play for the team," said Adams, a third-round pick a year ago whose rookie season was essentially a washout due to injury. "That was one of the moments in the game where I felt like I'm starting to develop and my coaches are starting to trust me more, so I just tried to do something to help the team, give a spark to the defense."
Earlier in the game, the 6-foot-3, 313-pound Lancaster knifed between two blockers to mess up a fullback dive from C.J. Ham on third-and-1, and Matthews was able to wrap him up, leading to a punt.
Lancaster got penetration another time or two against the run, and the undrafted rookie from Northwestern said those moments are the result of two things – getting more comfortable in the system, and improving his recognition of the opponent's plays.
Defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery emphasizes that his unit is "only as good as our weakest link," and for any young player, anticipation of what's next closes the inevitable gap with the veterans.
"If I can recognize the formation and see what plays are coming, I can play so much faster," said Lancaster, who began the season on the practice squad before coming up to the active roster when veteran defensive lineman Mo Wilkerson was lost for the season to an ankle injury.
"When I first got here, it was a lot of guessing. You don't want to guess, but because I'm still learning a new system, I'm not quite sure of myself on the formations, I was playing slowly. I was not happy with that."
Matthews explained that a teammate playing hesitantly can affect everybody on defense, particularly against the run, so it's on the young players to build confidence in their own games through studying the playbook and film. They have to make their reactions "second nature."
It's all part of the normal progression, but ultimately the Packers have no more time to wait, at 4-6-1 and needing to win every game to have a shot at the playoffs.
The plays Adams and Lancaster made at Minnesota are ones the Packers need them to make more often, as well as generate more pass rush when the opposing offense opts for play-action on apparent run downs. Too frequently, Vikings QB Kirk Cousins had too much time to throw, which allowed him to negate a lot of the good work done against the run.
"I feel like every week I'm going to get a little better, make one more splash play, whatever the team needs," said Adams, who got his first NFL sack three games ago vs. Miami. "I'm going to keep contributing."
Fellow lineman Kenny Clark sees the same coming from Lancaster, whose progress he equated to that of his own rookie season. That comparison may be a bit overstated and unrealistic given the less-heralded beginning to Lancaster's career, but it speaks to the confidence the former first-round pick has in one of his new interior mates.
"I'm not there yet, knowing every play and being able to play 100 miles per hour every single snap, but I would love to get there," Lancaster said. "That's the goal.
"It's one of the biggest opportunities that's been presented to me. This is a big opportunity to show I belong."