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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

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In Sports Commentary

Rookie defensive lineman Jerel Worthy is key to the Green Bay Packers defense this season. (PHOTO: Michigan State Athletic Communications)

Rookie Worthy will be key to Packers defense


One player does not a team make, an axiom the 2010 and 2011 Green Bay Packers know better than most.

The Packers made a surprise run to a Super Bowl title two years ago as a wildcard entrant, the team's incredible depth of talent overcoming an absurd amount of injuries to claim its first championship since 1996.

Last year, Aaron Rodgers put together perhaps the most complete season by any quarterback in the history of the game as Green Bay went 15-1, only to lose at home to the eventual champion New York Giants.

If a lesson could be learned, it's that while a single player might be the best at his position, the best in the league even, but it takes an entire roster – and sometimes more than that – to be a champion.

Yet, it's not hyperbole to say the health and performance of a singular player is vital to the overall team's success. Rodgers is clearly in that category. If he were to blow a knee in the preseason, the chances of the Packers making the playoffs dim considerably, let alone their Super Bowl hopes.

On the defensive side, linebacker Clay Matthews or defensive back Charles Woodson may be Rodgers' equivalent in terms of leadership and talent. But on the field, the biggest key to the Packers defensive turnaround is rookie defensive lineman Jerel Worthy.

This is not an unfair claim – high draft picks are expected to play and play well (at least if you're picked anywhere other than Chicago). Worthy is no different in that regard. Many graded him out as a first round talent, and the Packers were fortunate he fell to them in the second round.

First round pick Nick Perry will get most of the attention since he plays a more glamorous position in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' system, but how well Worthy plays will directly affect whether Perry's press is positive or negative.

Worthy has the ability to make the entire Packers defense better, to help increase the number of sacks and big plays by Matthews and Perry, and help make the maligned and unproven secondary look better than average.

He, along with B.J. Raji, has the potential to draw double teams on the interior of the offensive line, or force an opposing running back to make a decision on whether to support gap pressure or an edge rush.

It may be tough to measure, exactly, how much of an impact Worthy will truly have since the Packers defense can't possibly get any worse than it was last season. They finished dead last in total defense (411.6 yards allowed per game), a number inflated due to its last-place ranking in pass defense (299.8 yards per game) that set an NFL record for most yards allowed through the air.

It's an unfortunate part of playing on the defensive line. If you don't put up huge sack numbers, you tend to get overshadowed. While he may drop his share of quarterbacks, his success could be measured in rushed throws, or the number of hurries and sacks his teammates pick up.

Worthy is important for another reason. The Packers upgraded the defensive line further with the signing of Anthony Hargrove, but he is facing a suspension following his role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. Fellow lineman Mike Neal will also begin the season on the suspended list. If Worthy can make an impact at the outset, the returns of Neal and Hargrove only give the team quality depth that hearkens back to 2010.

Is he the singular most important player on the team? No. But everything in football begins from the ground up, whether it Rodgers' footwork to Woodson's hip turn to Josh Sitton's hands to Matthews' ability to turn his shoulders up field.

The offensive and defensive lines are the foundation of the Packers success, and how well – and how quickly – Worthy can perform will go a long way in determining if that house can stand up to the heavy Lambeau Field wind in January.


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