Injuries strike Packers’ defense as Jake Ryan, Kentrell Brice carted off
GREEN BAY — The ominous dark clouds hovered not far from Ray Nitschke Field on Monday afternoon, the occasional lightning bolt crackling through them. The looming storm led coach Mike McCarthy to cut practice short, but it was too late.
There might not have been a more apropos metaphor for what the Green Bay Packers defense had already endured.
The Packers lost two veteran defensive players to what appeared to be significant injuries during practice — safety Kentrell Brice, who went down with an apparent left leg injury during a punt drill early on, and inside linebacker Jake Ryan, who went down with an apparent right knee injury while trying to make a tackle during an 11-on-11 period late in the session.
Each player left the field on a cart, and while no update was available — Packers coach Mike McCarthy isn’t slated to speak to reporters until this morning — the signs certainly weren’t encouraging. Ryan, for one, screamed in agony and was pounding his hand into the turf as the medical staff tended to him. He appeared to put a little bit of weight on his right leg as he worked his way to the cart.
“That was bad, man. You hate to see that,” second-year safety Josh Jones said. “That’s your brother. You don’t like to see an injury, period. (But) we need everybody. We need all parts, everybody locked in, all hands on deck. You hate to see a loss, especially guys that are a big part of the defense.”
The Packers could have left practice in even worse shape had Pro Bowl defensive end Mike Daniels’ early-practice injury proven severe. Daniels departed after the first snap of the first 11-on-11 period, but said after practice he had simply been hit in the thigh and that he would be fine, though he may sit out a practice or two as a result.
The injuries to Brice and Ryan were especially significant because of where each player entered camp on the depth chart
Brice, a former undrafted free agent who missed much of last season with an ankle injury, has been working with the No. 1 defense alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — and ahead of Jones, a second-round pick a year ago — at safety. Ryan, now in his fourth season, had been one of only two inside linebackers on the roster with experience — along with Blake Martinez — and has played in 43 games (27 starts) his first three seasons, including 12 starts last year.
“I walked away, went over there and just prayed because I know it’s hard,” said cornerback Demetri Goodson, who battled back from a catastrophic 2016 knee injury. “You can tell by the way somebody screams like that, you know. I just went over there and prayed for him. Hopefully it’s not as bad as it seems.”
Added Martinez: “Jake’s been my boy since I got here, and it’s definitely a tough moment. I had chills the whole time it was happening.”
With Ryan out, Martinez called the rest of the inside linebackers up after practice, and he was surrounded by five players who’ve never played an NFL snap — rookie third-round pick Oren Burks, undrafted rookies Greer Martini, Naashon Hughes and Marcus Porter and first-year player Ahmad Thomas. If Ryan’s injury proves serious, the Packers will be sorely lacking experience behind Martinez.
“I told each and every one of them, ‘This is a tough situation. No one ever wants one of our guys to get hurt,’” Martinez said. “But, I go back to my rookie year: Guys got hurt, I got a chance to step up and all of a sudden I’m starting. It’s at those points where (you ask), ‘All right, what are you going to do now to be that guy that can step up and make those plays?’”
The answer at inside linebacker could be the 6-foot-3, 233-pound Burks, a former college safety who has the kind of athleticism that should give him a better chance at covering big, athletic tight ends such as Jimmy Graham, who’d gotten the better of Ryan earlier in practice.
“The possibilities go up immediately, and that’s something I’m comfortable with. I just have to get the job done. It’s kind of that next-man-up mentality,” Burks said. “Prayers for him, (we) hope he’s back and healthy, because we need him in the room just numbers wise, but my role is to step up and fill that role.
“It’s just that mentality. Look around, and it’s all rookies. One of us has to step up. It’s a big opportunity for all of us and we’re all looking forward to it. We’ve all just got to compete and do what this team needs to win.”
At safety, the Packers coaching staff was extremely high on Brice, who missed 10 games last season with the ankle injury but drew praise last month from McCarthy, who said Brice was “definitely having one of the best offseason programs” of any player on the roster.
“Kentrell’s doing an excellent job,” McCarthy said on June 14. “The thing that goes unnoticed (are) his communication skills. I love the way he plays. I think the ability to get past the injury and be here the whole time, having him full go in the strength and conditioning program, you can see he’s really comfortable out there with the adjustments and the communication. I would definitely be shocked if we’re not sitting here after the season thinking that he’s definitely taken a big jump, because I’ve seen it throughout the offseason.”
If Brice misses extended time, Jones figures to get the call. Earlier in the week, he’d said he wasn’t worried about starting camp behind Brice — “I live by the motto, ‘No handouts,’” Jones said, “so if I have to start on the bottom and work my way to the top, I’ll enjoy it” — and now, he may have been handed a major opportunity to prove himself after playing more than 700 snaps last season and enduring the typical ups and downs of a rookie.
“I’ve got to do me. That’s the whole mindset,” Jones said. “I compete with myself. I feel like that’s how you should be. You shouldn’t compete with anybody other than yourself. You’ve got to get yourself better. You have to work on yourself. How can I get Josh Jones better? It’s a daily competition. And once you get yourself together, everything else is going to take care of itself.”