LB Desmond Bishop pressures Tennessee QB Vince Young during a preseason game last year.
In football practice lingo, it's called "runnin' with the 1's."
What it's a reference to is a backup player getting a chance to take the field for practice snaps with the starters, or No. 1 unit, and second-year middle linebacker Desmond Bishop was the one in that spotlight during the open OTA workout last week.
With starter Nick Barnett absent last Thursday, Bishop took his place as the No. 1 middle linebacker. For a young player like Bishop, who was drafted in the sixth round in 2007, it was a significant two-fold opportunity.
First, it provided a chance to get into the flow of the defense with the team's top performers surrounding him, such as defensive linemen Ryan Pickett and Aaron Kampman, and fellow linebacker A.J. Hawk.
Second, he was taking those snaps against the starting offense, which obviously presents the stiffest challenge.
"It helps tremendously because the No. 1 offense, they're good, they're efficient, everybody has been there," Bishop said. "To compete with them, everything happens a little bit faster, and it trains my body and my mind to react and play faster and at the speed you need to play during games. It's the best practice you can get out there.
"It's definitely a learning experience, a good opportunity to see if I fit in and see if I can play with the 1's and make some plays. I feel like I did."
His most notable plays came in pass coverage. During a red-zone drill, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was trying to go deep over the middle to the tight end for a touchdown, and Bishop leaped high into the air to bat the ball down with one hand.
He took some grief from his teammates for that play, because had he not swatted the ball away, safety Nick Collins may have been in position to intercept it. But it was an impressive, athletic play nonetheless.
Then later in practice, Bishop nearly broke up a pass to receiver Donald Driver on a short underneath route. A linebacker guarding a wideout is normally considered a mismatch, even on a short throw, but Bishop made it a close play. He had Driver blanketed and nearly knocked the ball away, but a well-placed low throw by Rodgers and Driver's sure hands still executed the completion, much to the chagrin of Bishop, who slapped his hands together and let out a howl of frustration.
That was the kind of intensity he showed all practice, and not that he isn't going all-out at other times, but Bishop was definitely geared up to run with the 1's, just like last year in the regular-season finale, when he took over for Barnett in the second quarter and posted six tackles (four solo) against Detroit.
"If your opportunity is there, you step up, and if you're a Packer, that's the expectation level," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said. "But with that expectation comes a lot of responsibility and accountability. I think Desmond has embraced that, and I think the guys have confidence when he's in there."
Like many second-year players, Bishop has taken advantage of the Packers' offseason program and markedly improved his strength and speed.
Since returning to the field for full-squad workouts, Bishop said he definitely feels quicker and more explosive than he did as a rookie, and combining that with a more thorough understanding of the defensive scheme has helped him feel much more comfortable, particularly when he gets any snaps with the 1's in Barnett's place.
"He's kind of re-made his body, and having Nick as a mentor helps him as well," Sanders said. "He sees the level of play that a Pro Bowl-caliber 'mike' linebacker has, and he's really had an outstanding spring."
That is putting Bishop in the best possible position for what promises to be a competitive training camp. Barring injury, Bishop won't be competing for a starting job, but he'll be battling for a roster spot amidst a linebacker group that includes third-year pro Abdul Hodge, who is back from a full year on injured reserve, free-agent signee Brandon Chillar and veteran backup and special teams standout Tracy White.
As is almost always the case at linebacker, those final roster spots will come down to special teams contributions.
Last season, Bishop tied for third on the team with 12 special teams tackles (behind White's 16 and Jason Hunter's 25), a respectable total for playing in only 10 games. He had a team-high four special teams stops in one game, at St. Louis (Dec. 16), and he added two more coverage tackles in the NFC Championship Game.
Bishop is confident he can improve in that area as well, because last year special teams was all new duty to him. He said adjusting to the length of the play - from three or four seconds on plays from scrimmage to eight or 10 seconds on special teams - posed the biggest challenge, but once he adapted, he contributed.
"You have to change your mentality," he said. "When you line up to play defense, you've got gaps and assignments. On special teams it's more of a reckless abandon. You just kind of go, don't slow down. You do everything at top-flight speed. Linebackers for example, you might have to shuffle and play for the cutback. On special teams, there's no shuffling. You just go downhill.
"I know what I'm doing now, and I think I'm able to start getting up there with Tracy and Hunter."
If he does, he'll be a tough player to beat out in training camp. The Packers showed how vital special teams can be last season, scoring four touchdowns and winning the field-position battle on numerous occasions.
Being an impact player on special teams has its place in Green Bay, and will only lead to more opportunities to "run with the 1's."
"Special teams, that's my bread and butter right now, so to speak," Bishop said. "That's what's pretty much going to keep me on the team and keep me contributing. If that's what it takes, then I'm going to give 110 percent in that area.
"But I'm also standing ready to get in there somewhere at linebacker, maybe on third down, or a blitz. Anything they can use me for, I'm willing to do it."