It has been the case through the first two weeks of training camp for fifth-year linebacker A.J. Hawk, who has continued to work as the starting 'Buck' inside linebacker in the Packers' 3-4 base defense while seeing some time in the various sub packages as well.
"I would think A.J. is probably having his best camp in his time here," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Tuesday. "I've liked his approach. His conditioning is at the highest level. He's always been a highly conditioned athlete, and I think he's taken it to another level this year, and I think he's been very productive out here. He's put together some big days, and I thought he definitely stood out in the scrimmage Saturday night."
Part of the reason that Hawk has been on the field even more this camp is because of the injuries throughout the linebacker group, including to veteran Nick Barnett, who has been on a one-a-day schedule following offseason knee surgery. Brandon Chillar, who worked inside last year with Barnett in the middle, has lined up primarily at right outside linebacker during camp thus far. Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop figures to make a push for more time in the sub packages next to Barnett, but that doesn't mean Hawk will be strictly a base-defense player this season.
"(A.J.) is going to be involved in a number of our different sub groups this year," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We played far more nickel last year. I could see us playing more variations this year in our sub groups. A.J. is involved in a number of them. We're going to have to take advantage of our linebacker group and try to utilize them the best we can.
"He has gotten an awful lot of work on all three downs out there during camp, and he has done a good job. A.J. has always been a real reliable guy in terms of making the calls and getting us into the right things. I think he is a guy that is a combination that can play both the run and the pass. I am certainly pleased with the way he has played this camp."
Hawk played in every game for the fourth straight year with 14 starts in '09, but his average of just under 38 snaps per game was a career low as the defense played a large amount of nickel in Capers' first year. It was a noticeable drop for a player that rarely came off the field in his first three seasons, averaging over 59 snaps per game in former defensive coordinator Bob Sanders' 4-3 scheme.
Despite the decreased number of snaps in '09, it wasn't as if Hawk wasn't productive when he was on the field. He ranked second on the team to Barnett with 87 tackles (70 solo), the fourth straight year that he either led the team or finished second in tackles. He was the only linebacker on the team to post an interception, matching his career high with two picks, and was only of only 10 linebackers in the NFL to register at least 85 tackles, two interceptions and a sack in '09.
The outside criticism that Hawk hears the most is that even though he is assignment-sound, he hasn't come up with enough "impact" plays. While he obviously would love to make more, as any player would, he said his own expectations outweigh anyone else's.
"It's not something I would worry about and think about every day, but it's something where at least in my own mind obviously yeah, you want to be a better player and you want to make more plays," Hawk said. "I understand that, but trust me I'm not out to get revenge or prove anyone wrong or prove anything to anybody but myself.
"I just want to see what I can do to help this team win. I'm not out to stick it to anybody that has done anything to me or whatever. That is not what it is about. That would be wasted energy, I think."
Like any of the players on defense, Hawk said his comfort level has grown exponentially in Year 2 of Capers' scheme. After spending last offseason watching cutups of other teams and players working in the 3-4, this time around Hawk could watch himself and his teammates in action as he broke down film.
"It's definitely being confident in the scheme and being confident in not only what I am doing but I know what everyone else around me is doing," Hawk said. "I think we have a better feel for where your help is at, where your safety is coming down, where your other backer is, what your d-line is going to do. I have always had an idea of knowing what they were going to do, but now I have a year under my belt of feeling it, being on the game field, getting some real reps at it.
"It's a lot easier when you are sitting there in an air-conditioned room watching the film to tell a guy what you should have done. When you have actually lived it and you have been there and you have seen on the field what you thought you saw in the film room, it's good to go over that film."
The familiarity with the scheme showed during the Family Night scrimmage last Saturday, with Hawk being one of the defensive standouts on the first unit. He came on a blitz on third down to get to quarterback Matt Flynn for what would have been a sack to end one series. On the next series he stuffed rookie running back Quinn Porter for no gain, and then later in the 2-minute drill, fought off a block from fullback John Kuhn to bring running back Ryan Grant down for a 4-yard loss on third-and-1.
"Obviously we were just playing against our own team, but I think with the atmosphere and everything I wanted to come out and at least make a few plays and just build," Hawk said. "Coach McCarthy always talks about stacking success; you have probably heard him say that. You just want to always improve at something and that is kind of what I have been thinking about.
"I think every day I learn a little bit more. I am just trying to take steps to get better every day, just take one little thing and get better at it."
Aug. 12 - Additional coverage