Published September 26, 2013
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The running back was about to break free around the edge when the arm of a Packers defensive lineman emerged from the pile to take him down.
Johnny Jolly looks just fine on the line for someone who's been away from the game for three years. He's wearing green and gold again after being suspended by the NFL for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
The stamina isn't all there yet. Getting into NFL shape remains a work in progress. But so far, Jolly seems to be making a difference while shaking off the rust.
"I've still got a long way to go," Jolly said. "I'm still working hard every day to get back, get up to the point that I need to be at.
"Football is football, it's a game that we play. Just a few technique things with me ... to work on, that I know I can do better."
The Packers (1-2) are 11th in the league against the run going into this weekend's bye at 93.3 yards per game. It's still early, but Green Bay is giving up about 25 fewer yards than in 2012, when it was 17th against the run.
There are more pressing problems for now, such as getting over an early rash of injuries to key players safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward. They haven't played a down yet because of sore hamstrings.
Star linebacker Clay Matthews left the Bengals game with a hamstring injury. Running back Eddie Lacy and tight end Jermichael Finley are recovering from concussions.
Pass protection remains inconsistent. Oh, and those finishes — not good. Fourth quarters have been a problem, such as when the Packers got outscored 13-0 by the Bengals in a wild 34-30 loss to Cincinnati.
They'll have a week to stew about giving up that lead to the Bengals; Green Bay hosts Detroit next on Oct. 6.
"Every week we have a message. And frankly, our message this week was to focus through the finish, and we didn't hit that target," coach Mike McCarthy said. "So, obviously it will be a part of our focus in the future."
The positives? Quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks fine overall despite his two-interception game against the Bengals. Green Bay has produced two straight 100-yard rushers in James Starks and rookie Johnathan Franklin after not having one for nearly three years. Although both Starks (knee) and Franklin (foot) left the Bengals game, too, with injuries.
Jolly has helped bolster a line that also includes wide-bodied veterans Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji. Last week, the Bengals did run for two touchdowns, but were otherwise held to 82 yards on 24 carries, mainly divided between BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard.
The Packers also contained quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Front Gore on the ground in the season-opening 34-28 loss to the 49ers.
"I don't want to just say this is all about Johnny, where if we're doing good it's all about Johnny and if we're doing bad it's all on Johnny," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said last week. "Johnny's just a piece of the cog in there."
Hard to imagine he's involved at all, given what Jolly went through in recent years.
He was arrested in April 2008 in his hometown of Houston for possession of codeine, a controlled substance. Jolly pleaded guilty and was given probation, with the understanding that another mistake would mean significant jail time.
In 2009, Jolly's last full year in Green Bay, the Packers had the league's best run defense, giving up 83.3 yards a game. Jolly started all 16 games that season and finished with 24 tackles, one sack and 10 passes defended.
The defensive lineman was suspended indefinitely by the NFL before the 2010 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy
In October 2010, he was arrested again. Jolly was later sentenced to six years for violating probation. He was released after serving six months and given 10 years of "shock probation."
Jolly completed a court-ordered drug-rehabilitation program earlier this year. He enjoyed strong support from teammates and the franchise in his bid to return. He worked hard through camp to make it through cut-down day. He's patiently answered countless questions at his locker over the last several months about his past.
But Jolly's beyond the storytelling stage now. His veteran presence is rubbing off on teammates.
"Johnny's vocal with some things and he's got a great sense of history of the league and hierarchy of players: 'You take this rep, you're a rookie' — that type of thing," Trgovac said.
The line is bonding together again over fried chicken meals, just like in 2009. The spread's laid out over a table in the locker room, surrounded by 300-pound linemen hungry after practice.
It's usually the rookies' job to get the meal. Jolly reminds them.
"Like I'm sure the vets did when he was a rookie, they made him go get the chicken. Johnny's real big on that, which is good," Trgovac said. "He's going to make sure you don't lose that."
Jolly says there's no noticeable difference in the style or strength of younger players since the last time he was around. As for his contributions, he's just working to get back up to speed.
"That's all I can do," Jolly said, "continue to work and take advantage of the opportunity."
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