The timing of defensive tackle Ryan Pickett's return to the Packers' lineup couldn't be better, and not just because this week is the regular-season opener.
On Monday night at Lambeau Field, the Packers' run defense will face one of its toughest challenges of the season in Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, and having Pickett in there to plug the middle will be a key to the defense's overall performance.
"He's a big part of what we do," defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn said of Pickett, who missed all of the preseason with a hamstring injury. "He's a guy that does a good job of not getting washed around in there, can anchor down in the middle.
"He has a lot of pride in not letting people run when he's in there. He plays double teams in there and plays smash-mouth ball about as good as anybody in the league, in my opinion. He makes a big difference. He's hard to move out."
Pickett's 330-plus pounds generally take up two blockers in the trenches, allowing the linebackers more freedom to run to the ball. For a back like Peterson, who was named the 2007 Offensive Rookie of the Year after he led the NFC with 1,341 rushing yards, a gaudy 5.6-yard average, and 12 rushing touchdowns, it takes only a little daylight to create a big play. So the more space Pickett occupies in the middle, the better off the defense is, even if it's not Pickett himself making the tackle.
"It takes 11 guys to stop it, especially when you're playing against Adrian Peterson," Pickett said. "He's not just going to run in the middle, he's everywhere. You definitely need to be sound up front and hold that up, because that's the worst kind of running, when they run it right down the middle. That kind of destroys the heart of a defense whenever a team does that."
That's what happened this preseason in Denver in Pickett's absence. The Broncos gashed the Packers up the middle a handful of times on a 99-yard touchdown drive that included 55 rushing yards.
But Head Coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week it's "convenient" to say that happened only because Pickett wasn't playing, and the more telling lesson is the gap discipline all the defensive linemen need to stop the run.
"It's just executing from the standpoint of staying in your gaps, not getting too greedy and trying to come out and make a play," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "Alignments and assignments. When we play that way, we're tough to beat."
Staying assignment-sound becomes vital against a back with Peterson's breakaway ability. As a rookie, he led the league in rushes of 40 or more yards, ripping off five of them. One of those came in the first meeting with the Packers last season, when he broke loose for a 55-yard run in the second quarter that led to Minnesota field goal.
Peterson got the Packers' attention in that Week 4 matchup, and not just because of the one long run. He had four other carries for at least 8 yards in that game, totaling 112 yards on just 12 rushes.
In the rematch six weeks later, the Packers did a much better job of slowing Peterson down, which Nunn and defensive coordinator Bob Sanders attributed to the linemen staying in their gaps. Before leaving late in the third quarter with a knee injury, Peterson had just 45 yards on 11 carries.
The defense set the tone early, as linebacker Brady Poppinga and safety Atari Bigby combined to stuff Peterson on a third-and-1 run on Minnesota's opening series. That was one of four carries for zero or negative yardage, and Peterson's long run that day was 12 yards.
"You have to be sound every single play, because (if you're not) one time, he can and will hurt you," Sanders said. "One time."
In that second meeting, it also helped the Packers to have seen Peterson one time. Nunn said that while a scout team can show the defense some of the running plays they'll see, no individual can replicate Peterson's speed and explosiveness in practice, and Monday's season opener will make those attributes somewhat new again.
"As fast as he looks, I think he's even faster than that," Nunn said. "You can't really get a good picture of that in practice, of how fast he's moving."
Pickett will have to get himself up to game speed quickly, too, having not played a snap in the preseason. But the best indication of his health is that he's not even listed on the injury report and has been practicing full-go since Monday.
"I'm not sure that you're truly tested until you get in a game situation," Nunn said. "But he took on blocks (Thursday), took on double teams and moved around. He's confident in (the hamstring) now. That's been the main thing."
The Packers don't have as deep a defensive tackle rotation as they had last year, so Pickett's game snaps as well as those of position mates Johnny Jolly and Colin Cole could increase. That's fine by them, as is the burden they carry as the first line of defense against one of the league's premier backs.
"He does everything well - he hits the hole hard, he catches out of the backfield. It's hard to find a weakness in his game, a chip in his armor," Pickett said. "We're just going to stay after him, have 11 guys shooting after him on every play, and keep him contained