Whitney Mercilus practiced on Thursday, and while this news didn’t generate the same kind of buzz that surrounded the returns of cornerback Jaire Alexander, left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Josh Myers, and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, it shouldn’t be minimized. It’s probably not a coincidence that the regression of the defense started around the time the 31-year-old former Texan was placed on injured reserve with what was thought to be a season-ending biceps injury.
In the last three games Mercilus played for the Packers before getting hurt, the defense gave up a total of 34 points. Not only was the 10-year veteran from Illinois effective as a pass rusher with 11 pressures and a sack in just over 100 snaps, but more importantly, he did a very good job of setting the edge versus the run. In that trio of games from late October through the middle of November, Arizona, Kansas City, and Seattle gained a total of 226 yards on the ground.
In the seven games since Mercilus went on IR, the defense has given up 191 points and 783 yards rushing. To say this is all due to the absence of one player would be disingenuous, but there’s no question how much No. 50 was missed. Without him, starters Rashan Gary and Preston Smith and backups Jonathan Garvin and Tipa Galeai were forced to play too many snaps. Gary and Smith tended to tire in the fourth quarter, and while Garvin and Galeai did mostly solid work, both should be on the field for 10 to 15 snaps a game and not the 20 to 30 they were logging some weeks.
The potential return of Mercilus is the latest bit of good news for a defense that definitely needed a jolt of positivity heading into the postseason. If all goes well on the practice field in the coming days, Mercilus and All-Pros Alexander and Za’Darius Smith will be joining a unit that already boasts a Pro Bowl nose tackle in Kenny Clark, a pair of edge rushers who’ve combined for 18.5 sacks and 125 pressures in Gary and Preston Smith, a likely All-Rookie corner in Eric Stokes, and two of the league’s most pleasant surprises in inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and corner Rasul Douglas.
Of course, none of this guarantees the defense will suddenly start playing as it did earlier in the season. Coordinator Joe Barry still needs to figure out how to integrate his new additions, and getting these three key players back won’t do much good if the recent spat of communication problems and sloppy tackling persist. Still, it’s hard not to be excited if you’re a Packers fan. Alexander and Za’Darius Smith returning is like receiving a couple of very late Christmas gifts in the mail, and now the possibility of Mercilus joining them is like finding one last present that somehow slipped behind the couch.