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Rookie defensive players making impact for Packers

By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The problem was simple and the solution logical.

The only question was whether it would really work.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson took note of his defense’s stark failures last year and then in an unprecedented move — at least for him — used his first six draft picks on defenders.

He delivered a heavy dose of athletic rookie talent to coach Mike McCarthy with the expectation that some combination of those players — as well as some undrafted ones he signed as free agents — would provide a boost to a worn out defense.

McCarthy, in turn, threw the rookies into the mix right away and accepted whatever shortcomings they might have due to their inexperience. Five of the six draft choices and one of the undrafted rookies have played a considerable amount during the first nine games of the season.

“You talk about all those young guys, they’ve all played significant time and with that I think you see improvement,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “They just get more comfortable in what their roles are.

“The one good thing about getting these young guys all the repetitions that we have: You saw all of them play basically (Sunday against Arizona) and they all contributed to the win.

The six who were drafted are linebacker Nick Perry, end Jerel Worthy, cornerback Casey Hayward, end Mike Daniels, safety Jerron McMillian and linebacker Terrell Manning. All but Manning have not only played snaps on defense but have taken on important roles.

Undrafted linebacker Dezman Moses has also played a good share of snaps, and undrafted safety Sean Richardson is contributing heavily on special teams.

Playing the rookies was all done with the expectation that the lumps the team suffered early on would smooth out during the deciding months of the season. The initiation period is now over for these rookies and into the second phase: Fulfilling their potential.

Through nine games, the Packers are 6-3 and ranked 12th in the NFL in defense. Once they come back from their bye Sunday, the expectation level goes from hoping for production to demanding it.

“This thing is tightening up now,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “We’re getting to the nitty-gritty and we’re going to put our guys out there who are producing the most.”

The bad news for McCarthy is that Perry, his top pick, is done for the season after undergoing wrist surgery. The good news is that Moses has played enough to help fill that void, which has been made even bigger by Clay Matthews’ hamstring injury.

In addition, Perry hasn’t been his top rookie performer. It has been Hayward.

Not only has he stepped in as a starter in place of injured Sam Shields, he has assumed a large part of injured Charles Woodson’s job, a remarkable feat for someone with nine games of experience. He has a team-leading four interceptions and set up another one for linebacker Eric Walden with a pass breakup Sunday.

“The kid studies, he sees things, he’s a professional,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “He’s a mature young man. You look at every aspect of that.

“Now it’s just, he’s going to see some things (he hasn’t seen before) and things happen a lot faster in this NFL game than it happens in college. So he’s going to have to get used to some of that. But I think he’s doing an excellent job.”

Hayward doesn’t have a perfectly clean record, but the most impressive part of his game is that getting beat doesn’t seem to affect him. The interception he caused against the Cardinals came after he gave up a long completion in which he bit on the wrong route.

Joining him in the secondary is McMillian, whose enthusiasm for the game and physical nature have added an element to the defense it lacked last season. McMillian played a lot early, but made enough mistakes that Capers replaced him with M.D. Jennings in the important nickel safety role.

He remains a safety in the dime package and played well against the Cardinals.

“He’s showing flashes of what we expect and some flashes of what it’s not supposed to look like,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “A typical rookie at this point, but we’re pleased with the progress he’s making and I think the most important thing is we continue to get better each week.

“And these reps these guys are getting right now are invaluable. They’ll help us down the stretch.”

Worthy and Daniels play a position that is typically hardest to master for rookies, so it’s not as if Capers is expecting either one to reach double-digit sacks this year. But they are expected to maintain a high level of play when veterans Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji and C.J. Wilson aren’t in the game.

And when they are in the game with those veterans, they need to take advantage of the attention paid to the others.

“I think everybody in that defensive room sees that and knows that at some point in time they’re going to be called upon and they’re expected to perform,” Capers said. “They feel the pressure from the rest of the guys in the room.

“If they’re called upon, they need to go out and perform. We’re evaluated on one thing, and that’s winning football games. What gives us the best chance of winning is those guys have to be ready to go.”

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