ST. LOUIS — Until the Green Bay Packers line up against the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 8, nobody will know for sure whether their defense will be any better than the one that took a 579-yard beating at Candlestick Park in January.
But if you were to take anything out of the Packers’ 19-7 preseason victory over the St. Louis Rams on Saturday night, it’s that two additions to the unit could stand to make a difference in how it performs this season.
Rookie cornerback Micah Hyde and veteran defensive end Johnny Jolly both showed they have a lot to offer coordinator Dom Capers in his attempt to get his defense off the canvas and back into the fight with the 49ers.
With first-round pick Datone Jones out with an ankle injury, the most conspicuous draft addition to the defense has been Hyde, the fifth-round pick from Iowa whose emergence this summer began as early as the team’s intrasquad scrimmage.
After an outstanding performance against Arizona last week, Hyde stood out again while playing almost the entire game out of necessity.
Playing mostly in the slot, where he was matched up for a while against Rams speedy first-round receiver Tavon Austin, Hyde had a sack, a quarterback hit, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups.
His only hiccup was a 57-yard completion to receiver Chris Givens on the Rams’ second drive. However, safety Jerron McMillian took responsibility for the play, saying he should have been back deep offering help.
“It’s almost like he’s used to the big stage,” safety Morgan Burnett said of Hyde. “He’s a football player and a natural athlete, and you can see his instincts. He lets his instincts take over at times, which puts him in position to make plays.
“He’s been doing a great job throughout camp. He’s just a football player. He’s very poised out there.”
Scouts knocked Hyde’s lack of speed and so when Givens beat him deep, there were probably more than a few feeling justified in their assessment. And while Hyde still has a lot to prove, it was a huge hurdle for him to line up against Austin, considered one of the most explosive receivers in the game, and handle the assignment quite well.
He made a huge tackle on Austin in the flat on the same drive he gave up the 57-yarder, tackling him at the 2-yard line and setting up a third and goal. Austin caught four passes, but it was for just a total of 28 yards, a 7.0 average.
“I just went out there and played my game,” Hyde said. “I play against good receivers every day. That’s a credit to our offense. I just wanted to play the way I normally do in practice.
“Fortunately, they tried running some routes and we had some leverage on them, so I was able to get my hands on him a couple times. I could have done a little more, but at the end of the day I made some plays and I made some mistakes.”
While Hyde has emerged in the backfield, Jolly suddenly has become a factor in the reinforcement of the defensive line.
Gone for 3 years due to a drug arrest and subsequent prison time, Jolly gradually has worked his way back into playing form and made a run at a roster spot.
Against the Rams, he was responsible for two turnover plays.
First he picked off a deflected pass while making a zone drop into the end zone on a third-down play at the 5. Later, he flashed a move that had been one of his most effective in his previous term with the Packers, raising his hand and deflecting a pass that was intercepted by cornerback Jarrett Bush.
Those are the kind of plays the defense lacked last year, but Jolly also was a force in the middle and showed that he may have the disruptive ability he once did.
He’s one player whom the defense can count on to raise the level of toughness of the entire unit just being out on the field.
“I’m just continuing to work hard,” Jolly said. “I’m just one of 90 guys trying to make this team. I’ve got a long ways to go, so I’ll keep working at it.”