With Mike Neal out of the lineup, defensive end Jarius Wynn stepped forward with a solid performance vs. the Saints, motivated by lessons learned after being released in early 2010 and sweltering afternoons on a high school football field last summer.
Against New Orleans, Wynn had a career-high four tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hit. The 285-pound lineman came up with a pair of nice plays to help squelch a promising march by the Saints on their hurried final drive of the first half, dropping Drew Brees for a sack to force a timeout, then teaming with linebacker Desmond Bishop four downs later to catch speedy running back Darren Sproles for a 4-yard loss after a short pass. New Orleans would punt on the next play.
Wynn, who was playing in his 21st NFL game since being drafted in the sixth round in 2009, had 14 career tackles entering the contest against New Orleans, with 1½ sacks. His biggest game previously was against Minnesota at Lambeau Field last year when the Packers were down to just three healthy defensive linemen. Wynn dropped Brett Favre for a sack after fighting through two blockers with 1:12 remaining in that game.
At this time last year, however, Wynn was watching the Packers on TV. He was released by the team in the final roster reduction, before being re-signed 10 days later after Justin Harrell was lost for the season due to a knee injury.
The experience changed Wynn's approach, and also his fledgling NFL career.
"Before I got cut, I feel like I didn't take in as much as I should have," he said. "I didn't concentrate on the small stuff like I do now. I didn't do everything I could have. Now I concentrate on everything the coaches say and work to get everything out of my ability. I feel like I am becoming a better player."
Part of that process came in the offseason. With NFL players on their own to stay in shape, Wynn went in search of some extra tutoring to refine his skills as a pass-rusher and run-stopper. He found it in Chuck Smith, a nine-year NFL veteran who had 58.5 sacks from 1992-2000. Throughout the summer under sunny skies, Smith would put Wynn through drills on a dry prep field in Duluth, Ga.
"He was tough on me, but that work in the offseason was important," Wynn said. "I know it helped me. I feel encouraged because it's starting to show. I really trained hard for this, and I keep thinking that hard work pays off."
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac has seen the improvement over the last year. He says Wynn isn't a flashy player, but the coach knows what he's getting – effort, determination, consistency and a career on a steady incline. Dependability is a hallmark for Wynn.
Wynn also made a sturdy tackle on Sproles in the fourth quarter at the Green Bay 5-yard line, stopping him for no gain. He doesn't have the size of Neal or C.J. Wilson, both of whom hover around 300 pounds, but he gives the Packers a different type of option up front than those two or B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett or Howard Green, the unit's true wide bodies. Neal continues to nurse a knee injury and was inactive Thursday.
"I take pride in what I do, and it's not about the size, but using what I have to my advantage," Wynn said. "I have to be quicker and attack; coach Trgovac tells me to stick my face in there. I have long limbs so I need to use that to my advantage. There are ways to make room for myself."
Wynn, who also worked on his strength last summer with a personal trainer, called Smith after the victory over the Saints. Wynn knew he was watching from his home back in Atlanta, and wanted to know what Smith thought of his performance.
"He told me it was good to get the win, but that I needed to use my hands more," Wynn said.