Despite Injuries And Youth, Linebackers Are Ready To Go

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Paris Lenon smashed his right index finger between two helmets while trying to tackle Thomas Jones during the third quarter of Sunday's game. He broke his finger, and blood oozed out of it.

"It was nasty," said Lenon, who needed five stitches and his fingernail re-attached. "It's like you turn on a faucet. When you turn it off, there's a little bit of water still running out. That was blood."

Lenon is not the only linebacker who left Sunday's game battered, and that could cause the Packers to re-shuffle their starting linebackers. Robert Thomas aggravated a quadriceps injury. He has not practiced this week, and his status remains up in the air.

"We'll play it out the rest of the week," Head Coach Mike Sherman said.

If Thomas cannot go, the Packers likely will start Lenon at weakside linebacker, Nick Barnett at middle linebacker and Brady Poppinga at strongside linebacker.

In such a case, the rookie Poppinga would make his first NFL start. The always excitable Poppinga, whose motor never stops running, would approach his start like every other game.

"I'm always pretty riled up," Poppinga said.

No matter who starts on the strongside, Barnett will continue to serve as the anchor in the middle. With 151 tackles in 12 games, the three-year veteran is on pace for 201 tackles. That number would shatter the team record of 180.

"They look to me as an example of how you're supposed to play," Barnett said.

Barnett has served as a rock of a continually changing group of linebackers. Na'il Diggs posted more than 100 tackles the last three years, but injuries to both knees have limited him to five games this year. The Packers traded for Thomas before the season, but he has missed two games with a quadriceps injury.

"We've had so many injuries and so many guys out of the lineup that we've had to be very flexible," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said. "But were gaining in experience, and the improvement is being made."

Poppinga is one of those players reaping the benefits. The fourth-round draft pick played defensive end until his senior year at BYU. Although he still must improve his fundamentals and technique, he has started to adjust to his new position.

As he crossed the Mason Street bridge during his drive home from work on Monday, he thought about the day's film study. He realized he had seen a player who plays well in space, is well-versed in pass coverage and is knowledgeable about the different reads of his new position.

"I see a linebacker on film," Poppinga said. "At first it was a little iffy -- like a half-hybrid type of thing."

Injuries, however, hindered Poppinga early in the season. He missed three weeks of training camp because of a hamstring strain.

"I missed a lot of time," Poppinga said. "It did stunt my growth progression."

Lenon should not be held back on Sunday despite playing with a bulky cast. Proper tackling technique calls for a player to use his shoulder and drive through a hit with his legs rather than relying on his hands.

"You don't want to reach and grab when you tackle anyways," Lenon said. "I guess it's going to help me work on the fundamentals."

Lenon has grown accustomed to using his left hand as his predominant hand. Last year he broke his right thumb in the season opener but still played the next eight games with a cast. Lenon has a litany of hand and finger injuries, and they all affected his right hand. He broke his fifth metacarpal as a high school sophomore and had wrist surgery during college at Richmond.

Naturally right-handed, Lenon has become so accustomed to using his left hand that he can now throw footballs with it.

"I'm really good at doing things with my left hand as a result," Lenon said.

Lenon's ability to compensate for his injury serves as a symbol of the Packers' linebackers during the 2005 season. Despite injuries and youth, they have come together to help steer the league's eighth-ranked defense.

"We've really fed off each other," Poppinga said. "There's a strong bond between us."

**

Quick Hits: Detroit Lions head coach Dick Jauron insinuated that quarterback Jeff Garcia, who took every snap during last week's game, will start against the Packers. "We don't anticipate making any personnel changes to those that we ended the game with," Jauron said. ... William Whitticker took most of the snaps at right guard on Thursday for the second consecutive day. ... Sherman spoke to Ahman Green on Tuesday night. The running back tore his quadriceps tendon in Week 6, ending his season. "He's making progress," Sherman said. "He's ahead of schedule." ... Both Andrae Thurman and Ahmad Carroll have taken turns returning kicks during practice. Thurman has taken the majority of those snaps, but Sherman has not declared a starter.

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