So far this season, trying to find one of the Packers linebackers in the middle of a play is like trying to locate Waldo in a picture with a thousand guys who are wearing red and white striped shirts and hats.
The Green Bay Packers came into the season with what looked like one of the deepest linebacking corps in the NFL. In the preseason Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop outplayed starters Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk. Meanwhile, on the outside, Jeremy Thompson looked like a bona fide NFL playmaker, and he was stuck behind Brady Poppinga and first-round pick Clay Matthews. On the other side, Aaron Kampman, the Packers top pass rusher, was entrenched.
Too many good linebackers is a nice problem to have.
Fast forward to the regular season and it looks like the Packers have too many average linebackers and not enough of the playmakers they thought they had.
There are multiple problems, but before I get into those let’s be clear – the 3-4 defense is designed to free up the linebackers so they can make plays. It’s the inside linebackers job to make tackles. It’s outside linebackers job to pressure the quarterback.
In large part, those things haven’t happened, with the exception of holding the Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson to 55 yards during Monday’s game. But let’s face it, that game was a showcase for Brett Favre, not Adrian Peterson.
In the Packers two previous games, the only decent player on a terrible team (Steven Jackson) and an NFL journeyman (Cedric Benson) gouged the Packers defense for more than 100 yards rushing. When it comes to pressuring the quarterback, the Packers linebackers have been invisible as well.
Through four games, the Packers rank 26th in the NFL in sacks with five. Three of those five sacks have come from the linebackers – Chillar, Matthews and Kampman have one each.
Take a look at the Packers tackling statistics. You would expect Hawk or Barnett to lead the team in tackles, but Chillar holds that honor with 26 tackles. The Packers leading tackler ranks tied for 47th in the league, and the guy isn’t even a starter.
Hawk is next with 23 (67th), followed by Barnett with 22 (75th).
Compare those stats with the linebackers from teams who also run the 3-4, and you’ll begin to see the problem more clearly. San Diego’s Stephen Cooper is third in the league with 39 tackles. Cleveland’s D’Well Jackson also has 39. San Francisco’s Patrick Willis is seventh with 37 tackles. Baltimore’s Ray Lewis is eighth with 35. The Jets David Harris is 15th with 33. Cleveland’s Eric Barton is 17th with 31. Denver’s inside linebackers, D.J. Williams and Andra Davis, have 31 and 30, respectively.
When it comes to sacks, three of the league’s top 10 are outside linebackers who play in the 3-4 (the other seven are 4-3 defensive ends). Denver’s Elvis Dumervil leads the league with eight. Pittsburgh’s James Harrison and Baltimore’s Jarret Johnson each have three.
A lot of excuses could be made for the Packers linebackers lack of production. Sure, the Packers rotate their inside linebackers, with Chillar coming in for both Hawk and Barnett at times. Bishop has been used sparingly, but he’s received some playing time as well.
The blame could be placed on the transition to the 3-4, it could be placed on defensive coordinator Dom Capers sparing use of the blitz in recent games, it could be placed on nagging injuries to the defensive line.
I’m not buying it.
We’ve detailed Barnett’s struggles, his complaints about the rotation, and his battle to come back from knee surgery, but Barnett simply hasn’t played well since the 2007 season. A.J. Hawk was taken out of the nickel package before the season began, a clear sign that he isn’t the stud linebacker that the fifth overall selection in the NFL draft should be. We’ve even taken the heat for calling Hawk a bust.
Yesterday, we talked of the possibility of Kampman being traded. Simply, his skills seem much better suited for the 4-3 than for the 3-4. We’ve never been a big fan of Poppinga, and Matthews has taken some time to get acclimated to the NFL, but is starting to show his playmaking ability.
So, maybe it’s time for the Packers to shake things up by starting Chillar and Bishop on the inside, as we suggested during the preseason. Maybe it’s time to make Matthews a full-time starter on the outside. Maybe the Packers should trade Kampman. Average linebackers in this defense will not make the Packers a Super Bowl contender.
They may not even make the Packers a playoff contender.