The Packers had a problem. For several years, their defense too often held back Aaron Rodgers and the team's all-world offensive attack. In 2011, it gave up 359 points and an NFL-worst 6,585 yards, ultimately short-circuiting a 15-1 regular season run. Similar issues surfaced in 2013 when the defense allowed 428 points, among the 10 worst in the NFL that season. Even in the better years, Green Bay struggled with consistently on D, holding the New England Patriots to 21 points one week and yielding 37 to the Atlanta Falcons the next. Entering 2015, it became increasingly clear that a return to the Super Bowl likely required meaningful, lasting improvement on defense.
A quarter into the season, it looks like the unit has indeed taken the next step. During the team's 4-0 start, the Packers have allowed less than 18 points per game on average, the third-best mark in the league. Mainly on the strength of the defense, Green Bay managed to overcome a subpar offensive effort against the 49ers on Sunday, a possible sign that the unit has indeed turned the corner.
"To be honest with you, we always had the men in the room capable of doing the job," Packers linebacker Nate Palmer says of the defense's improvement. "It just took a little kick in the rear."
According to several Packers, that kick came courtesy of Mike Daniels, a player who once threatened to "deck somebody in the locker room" if the defense didn't make the necessary adjustments. His intimidating presence has helped shape and revitalize the once-maligned unit.
"We're playing football the way we know how," Daniels explained after Sunday's 17-3 victory, "that's physical and efficient."
This is a critical season for Daniels. After arriving in the league as a fourth-round pick in 2012, he now enters the final year of his rookie contract. Like many players at a similar point in their careers, Daniels hopes to secure the financial future for him and his family with his next deal. His performance thus far suggests a massive payout awaits him this offseason. However, Daniels says the lack of a long-term commitment has "nothing to do" with how well he has played.
"I've played very well since I've been here," Daniels says. "Got to keep getting better. That's my goal, to get better every week."
Fellow defensive lineman Datone Jones agrees. "He's the same guy every day," he claims. "The biggest thing now is people are starting to notice when they should have noticed it before. He's a phenomenal athlete."
For many, Daniels' name doesn't carry much cachet. The lineman has remained under the radar for most of his four-year run in Green Bay, obscured perhaps by the team's star-studded offense. However, Daniels has long served as one of the team's most important players, anchoring the defensive line during a multi-season span when little else around him remained steady.
However, as well as Daniels played in previous years, some of his teammates do see a difference in 2015.
"The light bulb has come on," Palmer says. "There's always that one time in a player's career where it just clicks. I've watched him since my rookie year until now. He's had good moments before, but right now I feel like it's clicking for him. He has a good thing going for himself and the defense."
The numbers support Palmer's assertion. According to Pro Football Focus, Daniels has compiled 15 total pressures through the first quarter of the season, more than double the amount from this time last year. That puts him on pace for to finish with 60 for 2015, an impressive 36-percent increase over his previous high.
Statistics don't tell the full story, however. Daniels' motor and tenacity has a demoralizing effect on the unfortunate men charged with blocking him. On Sunday, he shed Niners guard Jordan Devey twice on the same play to force quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of the pocket and into the waiting arms of a Packers teammate. From that point on, Devey assumed an ultra-conservative approach, attempting to simply stay in front of Daniels rather than actively engage him. The strategy failed, as the Green Bay standout still managed to rattle Kaepernick on several more plays.
If Daniels can maintain this quality of play, he should have no shortage of job opportunities after the season. At 26, he has just entered the prime of his career. He's also scheme flexible. In Green Bay's 3-4 base defense, he plays primarily as a three-technique, a position more usually associated with 4-3 alignments. Accordingly, teams running either defensive front could have interest in signing him.
And those position groups have exploded in value. Four of the top five highest paid 3-4 defensive ends signed their contract over the past two seasons. Each averages more than $10 million in annual pay. The same holds true for top 4-3 three-techs. With the salary cap expected to accelerate to as much as $160 million next offseason, Daniels could realistically garner $10-12 million annually on his next deal, a significant chunk of change for a player rarely discussed as one of the league's best.
But with the Packers surging toward another postseason berth, Daniels' stature could change in a hurry. Teams increasingly find themselves adjusting for Daniels, who disrupts nearly everything opposing offenses attempt up the middle. Though Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers headline Green Bay's D, Daniels makes life easier for everyone in the unit. The days when teams could overlook the talented defensive end appear near an end.
"They'll know who he is, trust me." Palmer promises. "When they get to the playoffs and have their game plan meeting, they'll say something about 76. I can guarantee you that."