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Jones, Poppinga Confident They'll Rise To Challenge

Posted Jun 3, 2010

General Manager Ted Thompson and Head Coach Mike McCarthy have long espoused the philosophy that the most improvement a football team makes from one year to the next comes from within.

For the 2010 Packers, that applies to multiple areas: the offensive line, which with largely the same personnel will be expected to dramatically reduce the 51 sacks allowed a year ago, and the secondary, where young cornerbacks like Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee will be charged with providing the depth that was lacking due to injuries and inexperience last season.

Perhaps most noticeably, it also applies to the outside linebacker position, where to this point the Packers have not used the free-agent market or the draft to try to replace the departed Aaron Kampman, who led the team in quarterback hits prior to his season-ending knee injury in Week 11 last season.

Instead, the onus will fall on second-year pro Brad Jones and sixth-year man Brady Poppinga to make the "improvement from within" approach work as the defense looks to find a pass-rushing complement opposite fellow outside linebacker and Pro Bowler Clay Matthews.

It's a situation that says two things to these two players. First, that the organization has confidence in their skills and their ability to continue growing and improving. But second, considering the importance of an outside linebacker as a pass rusher and a playmaker in Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive scheme, that they're being counted on to not just fill a spot but perform a major role for what the Packers hope is one of the league's top-ranked defenses once again.

"I think I'm building all the time, trying to improve and getting better all the time," Jones said following a recent OTA practice. "I think I did show some last year, and I only played half the season. But I'm definitely going to show some more this year."

Thus far during OTAs, Jones and Poppinga have traded off taking snaps with the No. 1 defense as the starter opposite Matthews, and the competition will continue throughout training camp and the preseason.

Last year when Kampman went down, it was Jones who got the call, and he responded. Despite being a rookie seventh-round draft pick who missed the first two weeks of training camp with a back problem, Jones compiled four sacks over the final five games of the regular season.

The unexpected workload led to him shedding about 10 pounds down to roughly 230 at the end of the season, so one of his main goals this offseason was to bulk up a bit. He said he's still trying to determine what will be his best playing weight, but it's a work in progress because it must be reached while maintaining optimum conditioning for the long season ahead.

"The whole key is you can be huge and big and strong, but if you can only do it for two plays, it's not going to help you," Jones said. "You have to be able to do it every single play."

Working in his favor is that Jones, like all the players from the '09 defense, has a year in Capers' system under his belt, so there's less learning and more refining going on compared to this time last year. Also, Jones is now one year removed from the "swimming" he was doing as a rookie in OTAs, when the concentration was more on not getting lost out there than actually making any impact plays.

"It's a whole different ballgame," Jones said. "You know you can play now. You always knew you could play, but you really know you can play now, and it's about being that best player you can be.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I can't rush the passer and play football and play it very, very well."

Poppinga is equally confident he can succeed, but that's no surprise to anyone who has been around the intense, affable veteran since arriving as a fourth-round draft pick in 2005.

The irony is that five years later he's trying to revive the pass-rushing defensive end/outside linebacker he was at BYU before converting to a run-stopping 4-3 linebacker for his first four NFL seasons.

"It's a whole different world playing on the edge than it is playing off the ball," he said. "It's a matter of tinkering and just remembering and adjusting to what is necessary in order to be successful."

Poppinga recorded 20 sacks over his final 35 games in college, so there is success as a rusher to draw upon, even though it was awhile ago. He said he never felt he completely made the transition back to an edge rusher in the first year of Capers' scheme, when he had just one sack as Jones' backup late in the season, but he expects another year of work at it to produce results.

"It's a matter of allowing the pass rusher inside of me to re-emerge," he said. "I had to kill him off there for a couple years because what I did then was in such a conflict with being a rusher. Now it's a matter of breaking those habits I developed.

"This year I finally feel like I'm fully committed to the position. It just feels so much better right now. Every day is a step forward."

To be fair, the Packers aren't expecting the other outside linebacker spot - whether it be manned by Jones or Poppinga - to be the pass-rushing complement to Matthews, who including playoffs had 11 sacks as a rookie, including six over a four-game stretch late in the regular season.

They're expecting it to be a viable component to the pass rush, along with the interior of the defensive line, where Cullen Jenkins hopes to improve on his 4" sacks, B.J. Raji will look to stay healthy, and new draftees Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson have college track records as productive inside rushers. There also will of course be blitzes involving inside linebackers and defensive backs, packages that could get more creative in Year 2 of Capers' scheme.

{sportsad300}But having a legitimate pass-rush threat at both outside-linebacker spots would simply give Capers that many more options - options that in many respects were missing in the playoff loss at Arizona when Matthews was double-teamed most of the game.

Poppinga noted how the Pittsburgh Steelers feature James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in their 3-4, and that having productive pass rushers coming from opposite sides of the formation makes it difficult for opposing offenses to protect all the angles. The Pittsburgh duo has combined for 50 sacks over the last two seasons for one of the league's consistently strong units.

"To have another element to where you have two guys (on the outside) that are causing havoc, it really puts the offense in a bind and it really makes this defense go the way it's meant to go," Poppinga said. "It's been proven historically and currently with the Pittsburgh Steelers."

So which of these two will emerge? Hopefully both, and the ongoing competition should help accomplish that. The reality is the Packers need both Jones and Poppinga to elevate their games, because there's no telling when injuries could strike or what wrinkles Capers will incorporate into the defense this year.

Last season for example, Capers devised the one-down lineman/five-linebacker "Psycho" package that took advantage of the Packers' impressive depth at inside linebacker. If Jones, Poppinga and others can join Matthews in providing that same dynamic on the outside, who knows what that adds to the playbook.

"It's a cohesive group we have I think," Jones said of the defense as a whole. "It just gets easier when you've been in the system for a year. Last year I think everybody was learning it. Now we know it and it's just about tweaking the system."

 
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