During OTAs this spring, veteran lineman Ryan Pickett, who was the starting nose tackle last season, began working at the left end spot with second-year man B.J. Raji taking over at the nose position. With last year's starting left end, Johnny Jolly, suspended in July for at least the 2010 season due to a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, Pickett's time there this offseason took on added significance.
"Ryan is a smart guy, and we try to have guys that are interchangeable," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He played well for us at nose tackle last year and we expect him to play well for us at end. I think he got off to a pretty good start the other night (against Cleveland).
"He should make it hard to run that ball to the left side of our defense. Most teams are right-handed with their run game, and you get a tight end over there more. I think he has done a good job with the transition."
After playing on the inside for his entire nine-year career, Pickett said defending the run from the end spot has its advantages.
"It's actually better on the outside because I get a lot of single blocks," Pickett said. "I haven't had single blocks in years because I always have been inside. So I like it. I feel like I have an advantage if they are going to block me one-on-one."
The 340-pound Pickett reported to training camp in what he described as the best shape he had started a season in years, mainly because he wanted to be lighter and quicker at the end position. He said the biggest adjustment for him was playing both the run and the pass compared to the nose position where his focus was almost exclusively on firing off the ball and playing the run. While the ends don't rush the passer a great deal in Capers' scheme, they are called on to react to the play more and move laterally more than the nose spot.
"He's another one that we have to get into the transition of being in a run stance, sitting in a flat stance, and then rushing the quarterback," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "That is the hardest thing to do. You are not sitting there in a sprinter's stance taking off. Those guys have tough duty on that where they have to play the run and then react to the pass."
Making a transition to a new position isn't uncharted territory for Pickett considering he made the adjustment last offseason from a 4-3 defensive tackle to the nose spot in Capers' 3-4 scheme. He was a key component in the Packers' No. 1-ranked rushing defense in '09, the first time in franchise history that the team led the league in that category. The defense allowed a franchise-record 83.3 yards per game, including no 100-yard rushers over the final 13 games.
Pickett did miss three games in the final month of the season due to a hamstring injury, but still managed to post 47 tackles (25 solo). He came off the field when the Packers went to their nickel package, with starting right end Cullen Jenkins and Raji staying in as the two down linemen, and that has continued to be the case in camp thus far.
"Ryan and B.J. played about the same number of plays last year," Capers said. "Of course Cullen played probably twice the number of plays that they played. Ryan is a guy that is coming out right now in our sub. Hopefully that will enable us to keep him fresh and he can play really well when we are in our 'Okie,' our first- and second-down defense.
"If you only have five guys up on gameday, they had better all factor into your packages. There are some games where you are going to play a lot more sub than others, so you've got to always take that into account."
In his first game action at end in the preseason opener on Saturday vs. Cleveland, Pickett led the line with four tackles (two solo) in limited playing time.
"Pick played really well in the game," Trgovac said. "Unfortunately he had a couple of wrong assignments in there, which took his grade down a little bit, but he was in on I think 18 plays and made four tackles. One of them he wasn't even supposed to make but he came off the guy. Pick played the run really well."
The defense as a whole had a solid performance against Cleveland's ground attack, allowing 85 yards on 22 carries (3.9 avg.). Quarterback Colt McCoy accounted for 25 of those yards on two scrambles, giving the Browns just a 3.0-yard average on their other 20 attempts.
The night wasn't all positive though, as the Browns posted scoring drives of 80 and 63 yards against the first defense, as well as another touchdown courtesy of a short field provided by a Ryan Grant fumble. There is work to do this Saturday in Seattle in the second preseason contest, both for Pickett as he continues to get more reps at end, and for the rest of the defense.
"We had some mental breakdowns that we need to straighten up," Pickett said. "It's a good time to learn it in the preseason. We take that as a positive. We didn't come out and play the way we wanted to play, so it's a good thing that we have this week coming up to come out and go to somebody else's field and play our type of ball.
"We have so much confidence in our defense. We're going to be a top defense this year. Words are nothing, but we have to work hard and do it in practice. We have a lot of pride and we want to be better than we were last year." Aug. 19 - Additional coverage