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Seventh in a series.

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LBs: Keeping an eye on Hawk

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – While the outside world questions wonders why inside linebacker A.J. Hawk isn’t more productive, how come he doesn’t put up meaningful numbers in terms of sacks and turnover plays and if promising second-year man D.J. Smith deserves a shot at replacing the 2006 first-round draft pick, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is just fine with what he’s getting from Hawk.

“You know, sometimes the perception of defensive players (is skewed),” Capers said as the Packers prepped to open training camp Thursday. “There’s going to be guys who make flash plays, big plays. And those are important. But there’s also, for us to be the kind of defense we want to be, you have to have guys who are really steady doing their job. There’s a direct correlation between the amount of big plays and the amount of points on the board. I know league-wide, if you have a play of over 15 yards in a drive, it quadruples their chance of scoring.

“So A.J.’s been a steady guy who’s been accountable, and accountability is really big in terms of taking care of your job. We’re going to ask different guys to do things. Many times, for the average person watching the game, they might not be totally clear on what we’re asking a guy to do. So if you’re pressuring the quarterback, many times there are guys who set things up and guys you try to design to get freed up one-on-one. Those set-up guys are just as important as those guys who are free.

“As we go through this and the amount of time we spend together, it’s extremely important to me to know who you can count on play-in and play-out. And A.J.’s been one of those guys you can count on.”

While the focus entering training camp clearly falls on three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews, whose six sacks last season were a precipitous drop from the 23.5 he put up his first two years, and rookie first-round pick Nick Perry, another USC product the coaches are hoping will segue seamlessly into the Packers’ 3-4 scheme, the unit’s ability to get more from the two guys inside is also at issue.

“I thought A.J. did just an outstanding job of leadership, being consistent, and really just was steady week-in and week-out,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “The one thing that you guys look for, obviously, is the impact and the paper production, but you cannot measure A.J. and what he brings to this team in some of the intangibles. From that standpoint, he’s as good as anybody as far as being a leader, the players believing in him and really having a good grasp of what we’re trying to do defensively.”

According to Capers’ theory, Hawk must be the set-up guy for Desmond Bishop, who despite missing three games with a calf strain suffered in Detroit on Thanksgiving, led the Packers with 142 tackles (including a team-best 109 solo) and registered five sacks, good for second-most on the team (behind Matthews’ six). He also forced two fumbles, tied for second on the team (behind Matthews’ three).

As a team, the Packers’ 29 sacks ranked 27th in the league, and no team had a worse sack percentage (sacks per dropback) than the Packers’ 4.28 percent. Meanwhile, for all their interceptions, the unit forced just 12 fumbles, recovering six.

Hawk, meanwhile, managed 1.5 sacks, zero interceptions, zero fumbles forced or recovered last season. While Smith serves as Bishop’s primary backup at “Mack” linebacker, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Smith could challenge Hawk, who starts at “Buck” linebacker, although Moss made it sound highly unlikely.

“You’ve got to be excited about him. He came in last year without an offseason, and by the end of the year had a substantial grasp of this defense to where we obviously felt comfortable putting him in,” Moss said of Smith, who tallied 38 tackles and an interception while filling in for the injured Bishop. “This offseason, nothing had detracted from that. So he’s in a tough position where he has guys in front of him that have stripes. He will have to continue to work hard and do the things that we’re asking him to do, and if he wants to play more, he’s going to have to take somebody’s job. It’s as simple as that.”

Outside, Perry’s selection at No. 28 overall made it clear that general manager Ted Thompson is taking the linebacker spot opposite Matthews seriously. 

“I like Nick. He’s a good kid, he’s got a good heart, he’s eager to learn,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said of Perry, who figures to start at left outside linebacker, with Matthews moving back to the right side, where he lined up as a rookie in 2009. “He’s very explosive, which I really like. Because everything about this position is about being explosive. It’s just a matter of basically taking him from the ground up and building up an outside linebacker, because he’s never had to do anything like we’re having to have him do now. Just getting him in a good, comfortable two-point stance is a process. And of course it goes from there. You have to open your eyes and acquire the entire field of vision, not just getting down in a three-point stance and looking at one man.

“It is a challenge, no doubt about it. But what it is also is that you know you have a young man that has no preconceived notions whatsoever on how to play this position. So truly, he is just a big chunk of clay, and you can mold him how you want him to be, and teach him the fundamentals and technique that you want to teach him.”

QUICK READ: LINEBACKERS

Depth chart
 
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
52
Clay Matthews
OLB
6-3
255
26
 4
USC
50
A.J. Hawk
ILB
6-1
247
28
 7
Ohio State
55
Desmond Bishop
ILB
6-2
238
28
 6
California
53
Nick Perry
OLB
6-3
265
22
 R
Southern California
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
51
D.J. Smith
LB
5-11
239
23
 2
Appalachian State
49
Robert Francois
LB
6-2
255
27
 3
Boston College
56
Terrell Manning
LB
6-2
237
22
 R
NC State
59
Brad Jones
LB
6-3
242
26
 4
Colorado
57
Jamari Lattimore
LB
6-2
230
23
 2
Middle Tennessee St.
93
Erik Walden
LB
6-2
250
26
 5
Middle Tennessee St.
58
Frank Zombo
LB
6-3
254
25
 3
Central Michigan
97
Vic So'oto
LB
6-3
263
24
 2
Brigham Young
54
Dezman Moses
LB
6-2
249
23
 R
Tulane
 
Burning Question
Is Perry the answer?

While Perry looked out of sorts dropping in coverage during the OTAs and minicamp, that wasn’t all that surprising given that he was a 4-3 defensive end – and apparently wanted to stay one as he entered the NFL Draft – during his time at USC. While Greene may see him as a blank canvas, he’ll need to improve quickly in that area if he’s going to be a three-down player. His explosiveness and athleticism make him a pass-rushing threat, and his size make him a logical left-side starter, where he should be more stout against the run and take some of those hard downs off Matthews. That said, if isn’t ready for the Sept. 9 opener against San Francisco, the coaches appear OK with starting Walden or Zombo.

On the rise
Bishop.

Every year, Bishop does more and more to impress. He languished behind locked-in starter Nick Barnett when he first arrived as a sixth-round pick from California-Berkeley, but when Barnett suffered a season-ending wrist injury early in the 2010 campaign, Bishop stepped right in and was a playmaker. He kept that going last season, but now he’s on the cusp of a breakout year, according to Moss. “If he maxes out his potential, talent and skill set, he’s as good as any linebacker in the league,” Moss said of Bishop. “He can cover, he can blitz and he can stuff the run.”

The most interesting man (not in the world, but at the position)
Moses.

Considering the Packers had a rookie first-round pick at Moses’ position in Perry, it’s an awfully big statement that Moses was the talk of the locker room when the players went their separate ways at the end of the mandatory minicamp in June. Cornerback Tramon Williams raved about him; veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, in a Q&A session at a private event in the Chicago area for his wine company, brought Moses up unsolicited. Certainly there’s a vast difference between impressing in non-padded offseason workouts and doing it when the pads are on and so are the lights. Moses merits a close eye now.

Key competition
No. 3 inside linebacker.

Smith played well when he filled in for Bishop, but Robert Francois did the same in Hawk’s stead. The competition got more interesting this offseason, when the coaches decided to cross-train both Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore, both of whom had exclusively played outside, as inside linebackers as well. Both Hawk and Bishop had been extremely durable before their calf injuries last season – Bishop had missed just two games since the start of the 2008 season while Hawk had never missed a game since he’d entered the league in 2006 – but Smith and Francois being pressed into service reminded everyone that quality depth isn’t just needed at outside linebacker in this scheme.

Noteworthy

The Packers got by in 2010 with outside linebackers opposite Matthews who came from humble football backgrounds, but last year, that same group failed to deliver, prompting the selection of Perry in the first round. The past two years, the team has trotted players with much lesser pedigrees out there: Erik Walden, who entered the league in 2008 as a sixth-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys out of Middle Tennessee State and was on the street when the Packers signed him on Oct. 27, 2010; Brad Jones, who was a seventh-round pick by the Packers out of Colorado in 2009 and started eight games as a rookie but missed all but six games in 2010 with a shoulder injury, then was the odd man out for the first 15 games of 2011; and Frank Zombo, who was an undrafted rookie free agent last year out of Central Michigan and made the difficult conversion from hand-on-the-ground 4-3 end to stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker but appears incapable of staying healthy. Also on last year’s roster were undrafted free agents Lattimore and Vic So’oto, who was a preseason darling that the coaches deemed too raw to see any significant time last year.

Quoteworthy

“You’re going to try to put out there who you think are your two best guys, but the more guys can do, the more value they have. That’s one of the things with a guy like Brad Jones in there, because Brad’s a good special teams player, he’s played outside for us a lot, now if he can get ready to play inside so he can play inside-outside-special teams, that really increases your value. The more things you can do, because always with injuries and those type of things, you’re deciding how many linebackers to go with as opposed to defensive linemen, how much can they do, what’s their value on special teams, all those things factor in.” – Defensive coordinator Dom Capers, on the outside linebacker depth.

Next: Defensive backs.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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