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After losing Jake Ryan, Mike Pettine focuses on prepping ‘nerve center’ of Packers defense

August 2, 2018
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Packers linebacker Vince Biegel hits the sled as other linebackers watch during a practice on Tuesday.

GREEN BAY — Mike Pettine did not want to sound callous. The Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator sympathizes with Jake Ryan, and he realizes that losing Ryan to a season-ending knee injury will challenge what he considers to be an integral part of his defense.

That said, with the reality settling in Wednesday that the right knee injury Ryan suffered during Monday’s practice — which an NFL source confirmed was a torn anterior cruciate ligament, as ESPN and NFL Network reported earlier in the day — will end Ryan’s season before it begins, Pettine and the Packers defense was already moving forward and focusing on how to get a group of youngsters ready to contribute to the position Pettine calls the “nerve center” of his defense.

“It’s tough,” Pettine said in his first get-together with reporters since camp began. “Unfortunately, that’s part of it, and you feel for him. But at the same time, I mean, the train keeps moving. It’s always something to deal with.”

Asked why inside linebacker is important in his scheme, Pettine replied, “It’s important because that’s really the nerve center. It ties the back end to the front end. The communication is such a huge part of it. There’s a lot asked mentally — not just physically, but mentally — of both the guys, if we have two (inside linebackers) out there. But the communication piece and making sure everybody is tied together is probably the biggest part of it.”

Without Ryan, a fourth-year player who tore the ACL in the same knee in college at Michigan and played 507 snaps on defense last season, the Packers are suddenly very young at inside linebacker. Behind third-year starter Blake Martinez, who tied for the NFL lead in tackles last season, it’s rookie third-round pick Oren Burks and a host of other youngsters who’ve never taken a regular-season snap.

Burks was already in line to play a fair amount as a rookie in Pettine’s sub defenses — his 6-foot-3, 233-pound frame and athletic ability makes Burks an ideal fit for the dime linebacker role — but without Ryan, Burks’ snap count figures to go up significantly.

And with first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst having said earlier this week that he isn’t planning to immediately sign a veteran at the position, Pettine and the Packers are hoping that the kids will be all right.

“Certainly we have experience in a guy who was very productive last year in Blake,” Pettine said. “The rookie, ‘OB,’ has flashed some things. (But) the transition from the college game to the NFL, it takes some time.

“(Burks) is very intelligent, he processes very quickly, but there’s still just that learning curve. It’s tough for those guys to come in, and it overwhelms them a little bit at first. And especially now, we’re working off the entire inventory (of the playbook). ... That’s overwhelming.”

After Burks on the depth chart are Ahmad Thomas, who spent time on the practice squad last season, and undrafted rookie free agents Greer Martini, Marcus Porter and Naashon Hughes. Burks said Martinez is an excellent veteran influence — “He’s the only vet in the room, so we’re looking to him for guidance and leadership,” Burks said, “and I definitely think he’s stepped up to that role” — but Martinez can only do so much.

“Whatever guys we have in the room, I know we can get it done. I think for me it’s just being able to keep them up to speed,” Martinez said. “I want to be that leader out there that makes sure that there is no drop-off (if) it is one of the five rookies out there. I’m going to make sure they know what they’re doing. They’re going to play physical, and we’re going to get the job done.”

While Pettine said Thomas “has certainly flashed some coverage ability” so far in camp, the team could still pursue veteran help.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” Pettine said. “It’s a big loss with Jake. I know we’re going to get together as a staff later this week when we talk about the roster and kind of where we are moving forward and what our needs are. I know there’s certainly open lines of communication with the personnel department.”

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