GREEN BAY – Two years ago, the move probably wouldn’t have worked. At least not with Reggie Gilbert, the four-technique defensive tackle, trying to execute it.
Back then, Gilbert was swimming in an ocean of NFL information, as a rookie learning a brand new position in a brand new defense. He used his natural strength and speed to stay afloat on the edge, absorbing whatever he could from Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Julius Peppers.
During last Thursday’s preseason game against Pittsburgh, however, the 6-foot-3, 261-pound linebacker illustrated how far he’s come the past two summers with a 2½-sack performance.
It started with Gilbert earning a strip-sack after a missed assignment gave him a free lane to Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. Pittsburgh recovered, but Gilbert used the error to set up an inside move two plays later to combine on a sack with Kyler Fackrell and force a three-and-out.
No longer just trying to out-finesse the blocker, Gilbert kept the Steelers’ line guessing all night, earning another sack and forcing an incompletion after using a stunt inside with Jaire Alexander coming on a corner blitz.
Gilbert’s 29 first-half defensive snaps were a glimpse into the evolution of a pass rusher.
“I feel like it’s a big advantage for me, because in this league you get a lot of different (offensive) tackles,” Gilbert said. “Some things might work on a tackle this week that might not necessary work on a guy next week. So you’ve got to tailor your moves to fit the offensive linemen. I feel like it’s been working to my advantage.”
A blend of patience, good health and dedication to his craft have enabled Gilbert to develop from a greenhorn prospect to a playmaker on the cusp of making Green Bay’s 53-man roster out of training camp for the first time in three tries.
An overnight success story two years in the making, Gilbert now has six career sacks in 10 preseason games. In spending nearly two full seasons on Green Bay’s practice squad, Gilbert credits his improvement to watching and listening to those around him.
He’s worked diligently with position coach Winston Moss and further developed his rush moves in the offseason with former college defensive line coach Thurmond Moore in Phoenix, Ariz.
In the classroom, Gilbert constantly studied the play style of Matthews and Perry since “they’re some of the best at what they do.” Anytime Gilbert saw something he liked, he tried to apply it to his own game in practice.
“I think when you watch Reggie play, you see some of Clay in his movements and how he tries to set things up, and obviously the influence of Nick,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Younger players, if you have a great player in front of you, pay attention and try to emulate some of those things. Obviously, if it’s within your skill set. And I think Reggie has clearly done that.”
Gradual improvements nearly earned Gilbert a spot on the active roster last summer before being among the team’s final cuts. Honing his skills for another year on the practice squad, Gilbert finally was rewarded with a December call-up to the 53.
Gilbert registered five quarterback hits and a sack in the final two games of the season against Minnesota and Detroit to end his second pro season on a high note.
His work this summer has only further legitimized Gilbert as a pass rusher who could contend for spot in the edge rotation behind Matthews and Perry.
“He has no ceiling, I think,” said Perry, who returned from the physically unable to perform list this week. “Reggie is a great player. We’re all glad that he was able to grow within the defense and stay true to himself, and he’s a student of the game. He’s always going to learn. So all of those things play a part in Reggie’s growth.”
Gilbert’s reputation exceeds his position group, with All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari recently going out of his way to commend the young linebacker for both his play style and professionalism.
Bakhtiari sees an emerging playmaker who no longer relies on just his athleticism. Gilbert sets up rushes, takes the information the offensive tackle is giving him and uses it to his advantage. On a personal level, Gilbert also has impressed Bakhtiari and veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga with his demeanor in the locker room and practice field.
“Me and Bryan have always been fans of his – and this is just a side thing but I think he’s a great person, a great teammate,” Bakhtiari said. “I think he’s someone you want to have in your locker room. The way he goes about his business every day is first class and very professional. I can’t really say anything but positive things about him.”
Gilbert still doesn’t consider himself a lock for the roster. He believed he did enough to make it last year only to be disappointed when the call came from director of player personnel Eliot Wolf to inform him he was being waived.
Gilbert says that moment isn’t what motivates him, though. From Day 1, his priorities always have centered on being the best player he can be. With two games left in the preseason, that mentality isn’t going to change now.
While there have been undrafted success stories in the past at outside rusher for Green Bay, Gilbert differs from the rest.
“I hadn’t seen a guy take his game to the next level in the NFL as much as he has,” said Matthews of Gilbert. “The athleticism he displays, only a few people truly possess that the way he’s able to bend, the angles he has, his hands and everything.
“Obviously I don’t make personnel decisions, but the way he’s playing I envision him on Sunday rotating in and out of that lineup just with the way he’s able to get after the quarterback, what he brings to the pass-rush game.”