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Linebackers Making Their Presence Known


For a blitzing linebacker to actually succeed in getting to the quarterback, a combination of factors must come together.

The linebacker has to time the blitz right, either going quickly enough to get a jump on any blocker trying to cut him off, or waiting just long enough for a lane to the quarterback to open. He has to take the proper angle, so as not to waste any steps or get caught up in additional traffic. He has to keep his pads low to avoid getting stood up if a blocker does get a piece of him. And he has to have the speed and agility to make it all work.

"Everything goes into it," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said.

The Green Bay Packers have a trio of linebackers who are bringing all that to their defense in 2006, as evidenced by their considerable contribution to the pass rush in last Sunday's victory at Minnesota.

Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga each got to Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson at least once and accounted for three of the defense's four sacks. As a group the linebackers had four sacks coming into the game, so they nearly doubled their season total.

"I think we always were attacking, I think we're just starting to get comfortable with attacking, sending guys and knowing where we need to fit on those blitzes and plays," Barnett said. "There were a couple times where I went and it wasn't even a blitz. It's just feeling comfortable and knowing where you need to fit, playing football."

Whether on a called blitz or a read-and-react rush, the linebackers' sacks had a huge impact last week.

Poppinga came clean on a first-quarter blitz and nailed Johnson, forcing a fumble the Packers recovered to set up their first touchdown. In the third quarter, Hawk blew through two Minnesota running backs trying to block him and took down Johnson for a 10-yard loss on first down, leading to a three-and-out. And in the fourth quarter, Hawk and Barnett met at the quarterback and shared a 10-yard sack, leading to another punt.

The collective effort prompted Head Coach Mike McCarthy to say the linebackers were a "major force" in the defense's performance.

"We all tried to just make plays and be impactful as much as we possibly can," Poppinga said. "We're guys who are aggressive and we want to get after anybody, and when the opportunity arises we're going to take advantage of it. When the opportunity passes us by, it hurts us, kills us, because we want to go get it."

As with many of the team's position groups, the linebacker play as a unit continues to improve as the season goes on. That only makes sense considering the nine games Barnett, Hawk and Poppinga have played together in 2006 constitute the first nine games they've played together, period.

Barnett is the veteran of the group, now in his fourth year, having perhaps his most consistent season and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Hawk is a rookie first-round draft choice leading the team in solo (66) and total (90) tackles and landing a spot on's Peter King's "All-Rookie Team." And Poppinga is a second-year player with one start as a rookie who has come back from a torn ACL in his knee sustained less than a year ago. He also has recovered from some mistakes in pass coverage early in the season and improved that aspect of his game.

"Since day one we've had a good relationship on and off the field, and with how our defense is, communication is huge between everyone," Hawk said. "I think our communication gets better every single day and we enjoy being on the field together. It's something that really, as the season goes, is growing."

{sportsad300}As that chemistry and experience develop, the coaching staff is involving the linebackers more in the pressure schemes. As noted, on certain defensive calls they have the option to attack the quarterback on their own depending on what their "assignment" on offense does or doesn't do.

In addition, the Packers have a modified nickel package this season that, rather than remove one linebacker for a 4-2-5 alignment in a traditional nickel, removes a defensive lineman for a 3-3-5 look that keeps all three linebackers on the field and makes one of them, usually Poppinga, essentially the fourth pass rusher.

But all the schemes and formations don't mean a thing if the linebackers don't have the instincts, smarts and athletic ability to make them work.

"Calls don't win games, the players making the plays win the games," Sanders said. "It's fun to watch those guys when the plan comes together, but it's the players that make the plays."

And they hope to keep making more of them.

"The calls are the same, it's just execution," Poppinga said. "We feel more comfortable with the scheme, we know how to play off the scheme, and we're making plays. That's what's going on."

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