Green Bay Packers Defense Needs To Replace Nasty At Linebacker In 2013
By Bob McGinn, TwinCities.com
July 25th, 2013
~GREEN BAY, Wis. — Desmond Bishop and Erik Walden were the type of linebackers that might have played the game for nothing.
When opportunity arose after anxious years of waiting, their mindset was simple: kick butt and take names.
Together with Clay Matthews and a few other teammates, Bishop and Walden were unselfish street fighters in an increasingly sanitized game. Limited somewhat in technique, stature and athleticism, the pair provided no-holds-barred nastiness that was vital for a Green Bay Packers’ defense trending softer by the year.
Now they’re ex-Packers, and their old defense needs a tone-setter or two. Who is it going to be?
Nick Perry is the logical candidate. Anybody who saw him lower the boom on Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck early last season remembers Perry’s destructive burst.
“That was about as explosive and violent a hit as we had all year last year,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. “You look for a guy that can play consistent, but then maybe two, three times a game you go, ‘wow.’ I’ve seen him do the things you want him to do.”
Perry, a 262-pound physical specimen, has the body and the athletic gifts that Bishop and Walden could only dream of having. Kevin Greene, the outside linebackers coach, is looking for hitters above all else, and Perry is well-equipped to deliver a blow.
As a rookie, Perry basically split time with Walden on the left outside before needing season-ending wrist surgery after 197 snaps. Flash he did, but the overall impression was mediocre.
Capers chalks up some of Perry’s problems on making the frequently thorny transition from collegiate defensive end to NFL linebacker.
“When it’s all new to you you’ve got to think a lot,” said Capers. “It has to become second nature. The second year is when you see the greatest stride with a guy that’s made a position move. I liked the way he looked in the off-season.”
So did Greene, who is confident Perry will play harder and better.
“He can do everything within the scheme to be a dominant player,” said Greene. “He has turned up his work ethic, his attitude, his hunger. He is in so much of a better place this year.”
Walden, who got $8 million guaranteed in free agency from Indianapolis on March 12, and rookie Dezman Moses both outperformed Perry last season.
Last on the depth chart at this time a year ago, Moses was so physical in camp that the staff couldn’t cut him. He went on to average 42.3 snaps in the last 10 games, an intense competitor whose pass-rush production belied his pedestrian 4.9 speed.
Clearly, Perry is being groomed to start and play full games. If he struggles or goes down again, the Packers don’t appear worried about playing Moses.
“No.1, he’s got pass-rush instincts,” said Capers. “He knows how to set a guy up and get on the edge, and he’s going to be intense.
“If he had to go out on a wide receiver or a real fast tight end and we ask him to stretch a guy up the field, that’s not his strength. But he will fool you with his quickness and he can run (stunts).”
Perry needs to have an injury-free camp, cut his mistakes and expand his pass-rushing repertoire.
“He’s a power player,” one personnel director said. “He powers his way through everything. At the end of the day, I don’t think he can do it because I don’t think he’s got enough quick twitch.”
Perry would do well to pattern his tempo and approach after Matthews, his former teammate at Southern California and one of the NFL’s premier defensive stalwarts.
“Clay’s having a great career,” said Greene. “He’s going to be in a leadership role more now than he ever has been before. He has to keep leading this defense and let his voice be heard.”
Veteran Frank Zombo departed for Kansas City, leaving rookies Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba competing for the No.4 job.
“They both have some pass-rush ability and the size you’re looking for,” Capers said.
Defensive end Mike Neal was down 15-20 pounds in June as Capers experimented with him at outside linebacker in various defenses.
“He’s probably more natural where you saw him in the spring than maybe where he was a year or two ago bulked up in the 290s,” said Capers. “He moved pretty good. He’s got quick twitch in his body.”
The plan is for Neal to work with both the linemen and linebackers in camp. According to Capers, he has the aptitude to handle diversification.
“He’s going to have the ability, literally, to play any position on that defensive front,” said Greene.
Little did anyone know that when Bishop suffered major hamstring and knee damage on the eighth defensive snap of the exhibition opener it would be the last play of his career in Green Bay.
“Well, I think it’s more about A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones playing the second half of the season for us and knowing what they can do,” Capers relied when asked about Bishop’s departure. “Along with a group of young guys in behind them.”
The Packers’ first off-season move at inside linebacker was extracting a three-year, $7.25 million pay cut from Hawk on March 16. His restructured deal averaged $3.533 million.
Five days later, they reeled back Jones from the unrestricted free-agent market with a three-year deal averaging slightly more than Hawk at $3.75 million.
Finally, on June 17, the Packers released Bishop, whose deal had two years remaining and averaged $4.544 million. Sources said the team’s medical staff was confident Bishop’s leg was healed but said the decision-makers had reservations he could ever be the same player.
They also were worried about Bishop’s history of other leg injuries.
An executive for an NFC team wondered why the Packers didn’t renegotiate with the emotional, head-hunting Bishop, who eventually signed with Minnesota for one year at $750,000 ($50,000 guaranteed).
The answer probably was Ted Thompson’s deep-seated belief in Hawk, the staff’s belief in Jones and an attractive six-man depth chart.
Thus, Hawk enters camp backed by Rob Francois and Terrell Manning on the strong inside, and Jones goes in backed by Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington on the weak inside.
Even though Hawk allowed just 2-1/2 plays of 20 yards or more compared to Jones’ 6-1/2, Capers said the plan is for Jones to play base, nickel and dime and for Hawk to play base and nickel.
“I really felt we had the best role for A.J. last year that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Capers. “And I like the way Brad matches up against tight ends and backs as much as anybody we put in there.”
Playing fewer snaps and 5 to 7 pounds lighter, Hawk blitzed and covered better. His ratio of one pressure for every 7.57 snaps was by far the best of his career and surpassed Jones (one every 10.75).
Bishop, however, did more than just hammer the run. In 2011, he was a force on cross blitzes, averaging one pressure every 6.85 rushes. Coach Mike McCarthy called him his best pressure player.
“One thing that gets overlooked many times about A.J. is his availability,” said Capers, well aware that Hawk has missed two games in seven years. “I also thought he was pretty aggressive and pretty physical at times last year.”
Before free agency, scouts for several teams said they evaluated Jones not as a starter but as a top backup. The Packers disagreed, and now anticipate him improving markedly in just his second season inside.
“He has some pass-rush ability to get on the edge of a block,” said Capers. “Plus, he’s done a nice job in dime. He can make the calls and he’s got pretty good length.”
The Packers also jettisoned inside linebacker D.J. Smith in April, five months after his reconstructive knee surgery. Now four players will vie for the No.1 backup job.
“Rob will go in there and throw his body around,” Capers said. “He ain’t going to back away from anybody.
“Lattimore will get an opportunity to step to the plate in the pre-season games. Athletic guy. He’s been a very good special-teams player.
“Then Manning and Barrington both have some athletic ability. Manning is healthier now and has been around for a year. Barrington is a 235-pound guy that can run.”