2013 is Johnny Jolly's first year back in the NFL after a three-year suspension. After overcoming that hurdle, now he has another: a season-ending neck injury.
As the Green Bay Packers celebrated keeping their season alive for another week last Sunday vs. the Dallas Cowboys, defensive end Johnny Jolly's ended. Per Tom Silverstein and Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the shoulder/neck injury Jolly suffered against the Cowboys will end his season.
The loss of Jolly, who had been trying to pick up from where he left off in 2009, is tough to swallow. He had the most batted passes of any defensive lineman that year, at 10 per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and started every game.
In 2013, three years after his suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, he was working back to that form.
A groin injury suffered in Week 11 kept Jolly out of the Week 12 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings and on the injury report for three weeks; his soreness was evident in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, in which he had just one tackle.
However, in the Packers' win over the Falcons, Jolly was back in full force, recording his best game of the season with five tackles, a deflected pass and three stops. He received the highest grade from Pro Football Focus by far of any member of the defense, a 4.1.
Now, the Packers run defense, which has fallen to 25th in the league, will try to stay in the playoff hunt without him.
Jolly started off strong in his return to Green Bay this preseason, when, against the Rams, he helped generate two turnovers—a tipped pass to Jarrett Boykin and a red-zone interception. Re-watching the play, it's clear that Jolly's return was an emotional boost for the team.
The play, part of a strong preseason showing by Jolly, was enough to earn him a spot on the 53-man roster.
Jolly started two of the first four games of the season. He didn't do a lot that showed up on the stat sheet, but he did demonstrate some impressive movement in space in the fourth quarter of the 49ers game, making a play 15 yards downfield to help Tramon Williams take down Anquan Boldin.
Jolly had a nice stop on Ray Rice in the second quarter, on the Ravens' first play after the blocked punt on which John Kuhn touched the ball after it had crossed the line of scrimmage.
Jolly beats Michael Oher to help bottle Rice up on the right for no gain, getting credit for the stop.
However, as previously mentioned, it was really two weeks ago against Atlanta in which Jolly stepped out of the shadow of his 2009 season. Not only did he have the five tackles and the pass breakup, but he also recovered a fumble forced by Mike Neal early in the fourth quarter, giving the ball back to the Packers, who scored in four plays and took the lead.
As Neal sacks Matt Ryan, the quarterback releases the ball, which catches Jolly's attention. He easily sheds his block and makes the play as the ball hits the ground.
On the batted pass, Jolly sustains his block but keeps an eye on Ryan, waiting for his release. As Jolly told Rob Demovsky during the preseason, he's always looking for those plays.
"For me, it's just a reaction thing," Jolly said. "Getting push and at the same time, I'm watching the quarterback. When he gets ready to release, I just stick my hands up and put them in the passing lane."
The defense will certainly miss Jolly against the Steelers on Sunday. The key to stopping that offense will be not allowing Ben Roethlisberger to get into a quick passing rhythm, finding open receivers on underneath routes and marching down the field.
Jolly's natural timing and instincts would have been a strong asset against Pittsburgh's quick slants and crossing routes.
He has been stronger against the run than the pass, and the struggling front seven will need rookie Josh Boyd to rise up in his place. Boyd has only played 69 snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus, but has displayed some qualities that have his teammates and coaches looking forward to his future play.
Green Bay can also call up C.J. Wilson, who has returned to practice after sitting out nearly half the season with an ankle injury.
Still, Jolly brings qualities to the field that may be hard to replace. "He's an energy in the huddle," Ryan Pickett said, per Fox Sports' Paul Imig.
While Jolly's neck injury may not need surgery, according to Tyler Dunne and Tom Silverstein, in the chance it does, the Packers will need to decide if they'll re-sign him after this season.
His teammates, however, know from past experience with Jolly that he can handle yet another hurdle in his career. "If anyone can fight through anything, it's Jolly," Pickett said, per Dunne and Silverstein. "His spirits are good."