2012 Packers Position Group Analysis: Linebackers

Packers Linebacker Clay Matthews III

Packers Linebacker Clay Matthews III

Packers Linebackers: We’re back with the second of this series where we’ll examine each Packers position group as it currently exists. We’ll be addressing three main points from the Packers’ perspective: where we are, where we want to go and what we need to do to get there.

Where are we now:

Here are the current suspects:

Clay Matthews (1st round)
A.J. Hawk (1st round)
Desmond Bishop (6th round)
Brad Jones (7th round)
D.J. Smith (6th round)
Erik Walden (6th round – is a free agent)
Robert Francois (undrafted)
Frank Zombo (undrafted)
Vic So ‘oto (undrafted)
Jamari Lattimore (undrafted)

Much like the defensive line spot, Ted Thompson has built this position group from the bottom of the draft up. Eight out of ten players came from the 6th round or later. I suppose that’s a bit of a necessity in today’s salary-capped NFL, especially with salaries for offensive skill players going through the roof. But it’s still a bit startling when you examine a roster closely and really see how a team is built.

Let’s start with Clay Matthews: Matthews could have been nicknamed “Fast and Furious” his first two seasons, taking the league by storm with 23.5 sacks. While sacks get the attention, getting stops in the run game are almost of the same value to coaches. To that end, Matthews was certainly lacking. There’s no better evidence than the now famous sound byte from the Steelers’ sideline during the Super Bowl. A Steelers coach is heard telling his offense they’re going to run at Matthews all day, because all he wants to do is rush the passer – he doesn’t want to play the run.

2011 was a different type of year for Matthews, but it was still a success. Gone were the high sack numbers, as Matthews was double-teamed an average of 37% of the time in 2011, and had practically no pass rush help to draw attention away from him. But other parts of his game solidified. He improved both in pass coverage and against the run, intercepting three passes, leading the team in tackles for loss and was only charged with 7 missed tackles on the year (according to Bob McGinn). So while many fans asked “what’s wrong with Matthews?”, the answer of course was, “nothing.” All he did was become a more complete player.



A.J. Hawk vs D.J. Smith: The Brewing Battle at Inside Linebacker

When Packers fans take a break from criticizing Jermichael Finley, they usually direct their ire toward A.J. Hawk.

By now you know the drill:

  • Hawk bashers say he hasn’t come close to meeting the expectations of a No. 5 overall draft choice and that he’s undeserving of his five-year, $33.75 million contract.
  • Hawk supporters say the linebacker is a steady presence on a sometimes chaotic defense and that his value shouldn’t be judged by raw statistics or the number of SportsCenter highlight-worthy plays he makes.

Both Hawk and Desmond Bishop got hurt on Thanksgiving. D.J. Smith and Robert Francois have filled in admirably and the Packers remain undefeated. Smith has played so well that there has to be some discussions among the Packers coaching staff about Hawk’s role when he returns.

Hawk has 39 solo tackles in 11 games this season, about 3.5 per game. Since taking over for Hawk, Smith has 18 solo tackles in about three games, an average of six per game.

Smith was all over the field on Sunday against the Raiders. He picked off Carson Palmer and made the sort of tackles that get you noticed by the television cameras. In other words, Smith made plays and did things Hawk hasn’t been able to do (unless you consider flicking off your own bench getting noticed).

Smith’s play has fired up the Packers fan base — so much so that many are calling for Hawk’s role to be reduced (see the comments sections here and here).

So what’s the right answer? Should Hawk or Smith get the nod at inside linebacker down the stretch? Only Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers know.

I don’t mean to sit on the fence on this issue. I wish I saw things clearly enough to boldly proclaim that Smith should play, or that Hawk shouldn’t be relegated to backup duty quite yet. But I really think this is another instance where Packers fans need to trust McCarthy and Capers to read their team and do what’s right.

Ted Thompson gave Hawk a lot of money this offseason. The Packers don’t hand out huge contracts to just anybody. They clearly felt that Hawk could play and this defense needed him. I don’t think they’re ready to just replace him with a sixth-round draft pick during one of the most important stretches in franchise history.



Packers Film Study – So’oto and Lattimore – if only Dr. Frankenstein Were Alive

Packers Linebackers Vic So 'oto and Jamari Lattimore

Packers Linebackers Vic So 'oto and Jamari Lattimore

My initial impetus for this film study was to take a closer look at Packers’ LB Vic So’oto, who seemingly has caught the attention of many Packers fans. As I played back the Arizona preseason game, I soon noticed that Jamari Lattimore was getting quite a few snaps over at ROLB. Why not take a look at both, I thought to my self. Well, I’m glad I did.

Taking a close look, it’s easy to see what Ted Thompson saw in both of these players, and just as easy to see why they didn’t get drafted. When you are a very successful college football player, as both of these men were, and you don’t get drafted, it’s because you’re missing something. It could be a physical attribute, a mental deficiency, a lack of experience or playing against inferior competition.

By coincidence, what each of these players lack is something that the other player has as a strength. If we could combine their best attributes into one body, we’d have the perfect 3-4 OLB (aka Clay Matthews).

Jamari Lattimore is 6-2, 230 pounds and was the Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. On the season, he tallied 64 tackles, 11.5 sacks, two blocked kicks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Lattimore’s strength is quickness and lateral agility. His pro day numbers of 7.04 in the 3-cone drill and 4.40 in the 20 yard shuttle, would have landed him in the top 10 and top 20 respectively, among linebackers at the NFL combine. His weakness is lack of size and strength

So’oto is 6-3, 263lbs and earned first-team All-Mountain West honors . He had 44 tackles, five sacks, 10.5 tackles for a loss and one interception on the season. So ‘oto has prototype 3-4 OLB size, and good straight-line speed. His 4.68 40-yard dash at his Pro Day would have had him tied for 7th with five other players.  Most surprisingly, So’oto also had an excellent 3-cone drill. His 7.01 would have landed him in the top 10 at the combine. His weakness is turning on the fly and lateral movement.

Of course, performance in drills don’t always translate to the field. So lets “go to the videotape” and take a look at both players in action. I counted Lattimore at 18 snaps and So ‘oto at 14 in the Arizona preseason game.  I’ve selected their best play and their worst play to illustrate each player’s strength and weakness: