The Green Bay Packers defense lost two key starters to injury in last Sunday’s disappointing loss to the Detroit Lions. The team was already without inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell but during Sunday’s game, they lost edge rusher Rashan Gary for the season and cornerback Eric Stokes for what is likely to be a significant period if not the rest of the 2022 campaign.
Gary suffered a torn ACL on the artificial turf of Ford Field. It was a non-contact injury. The former Michigan star will miss the rest of this season. Depending on how his rehab goes, he might be ready to return in time for the start of the 2023 regular season.
“It’s a tremendous loss,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur admitted when asked about Gary’s injury. “Not only just from obviously a production standpoint. He is a guy that just competes at the highest level. He is one of the grittiest guys that’s on this team. And just the effort that he brings on a daily basis is definitely going to be missed.”
The Packers already had depth concerns at edge rusher before the injury to Gary. Preston Smith will be the undisputed starter on one side with rookie Kingsley Enagbare likely to take over for Gary opposite Smith.
GM Brian Gutekunst selected Enagbare in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft. The South Carolina alum got off to a slow start this season but has made more of an impact in recent weeks. Through the first five games, Enagbare had no sacks and no pressures. In the last four games, he recorded his first two sacks and was credited with six pressures. He also has four tackles for loss and three quarterback hits.
Gary was encouraged by the progress Enagbare has made. Before the Lions game, he told reporters, “He’s been getting better week in and week out. He’s starting to understand the standard of our room and being an outside linebacker here and understanding what it means to be a Packer. I’m just happy that, the more reps that he gets, that he’s taking full advantage. You see him getting better on the practice field, and what he does on the practice field translates to the game field. I’m just happy for his success. He’s a hungry player.”
The edge rushers rotate in and now the Packers need to make a move to fortify their roster. Jonathan Garvin is the only healthy backup on the roster. Garvin hasn’t had much of an impact in his limited reps this season. In seven games, Garvin has no sacks, three total tackles and has been credited with two quarterback hits.
The team is likely to move La’Darius Hamilton off the practice squad to the active roster give them more depth at edge rusher for the rest of the season. It is also likely they add another player to the practice squad or active roster to reinforce the position.
Gary was the team’s most consistent and best pass rusher. While he was slowed by a toe injury in recent weeks, he was the team’s best weapon off the edge and his loss will be felt. The Packers gambled this season by not having proven depth behind Gary and Smith and now that lack of depth will be tested. The recent improved play by Enagbare was encouraging and this will be a big opportunity for the rookie to show he can be counted on to play a larger role.
The Packers also lost Stokes, one of their top three cornerbacks. The second-year man out of Georgia was struggled in his second season and his play fell off from his strong rookie campaign.
Last season, opposing quarterbacks completed just 49.5 percent of their passes when throwing to receivers covered by Stokes and had a quarterback rating of just 71.3 according to pro-football-reference.com. This season, those numbers fell to an 80 percent completion rate and a quarterback rating of 123.5.
While the team has yet to officially announce how long they expect Stokes to be out, he will not likely be returning to the lineup for several weeks. So, the defense must adjust. The Packers started the season with three solid cornerbacks but they lacked proven depth.
After the injury to Stokes during the Lions game, the Packers moved Rasul Douglas back to the boundary and had Keisean Nixon enter the game to cover slot receivers. Jaire Alexander continued to play on the boundary on the other side.
With Shemar Jean-Charles still not practicing due to an ankle injury, depth at cornerback becomes even more important now. There are no other healthy depth players at the corner position on the active roster.
The team has two cornerbacks on the practice squad in Kiondre Thomas and Corey Ballentine. It remains to be seen if the Packers place Stokes on IR and sign a new cornerback to the active roster but that would be the most logical move.
The Packers defense faces a challenge Sunday against the Cowboys and will face many more in the second half of the season. They now need to find a way to stop opposing offenses without their best pass rusher and one of their starting cornerbacks. We will soon discover if they are equal to the task.
Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers
Click here for more great Packers coverage