Matthews, Poppinga Not Settling For Second-String


They've both been working as the outside linebackers on the No. 2 defense throughout OTAs this month, but you can count on Clay Matthews and Brady Poppinga to make their push for a starting job sometime this summer.

And that's not a knock against Jeremy Thompson, the second-year pro who has taken all the reps thus far with the No. 1 unit as the outside linebacker opposite Aaron Kampman. Thompson has made a relatively smooth transition from defensive end and reshaped his body in a way that makes him look fairly natural at his new position.

But it's hard to discount how well the skills of Matthews and Poppinga fit the outside linebacker spot as well. Matthews, a first-round draft pick out of USC, excelled as the Trojans' hybrid end/linebacker with his ability to drop into coverage as well as rush the passer.

Meanwhile Poppinga, now in his fifth year in the NFL, was a defensive end in college who converted to a strong-side linebacker in the Packers' old 4-3 scheme. Now in the new 3-4, he's back to a hybrid spot too, and feeling more comfortable the more he learns about the defense.

"I think it's something that fits my abilities to a 'T'," Poppinga said of the new scheme. "I think we're going to execute at a high level. It's going to fit the types of players we have, and it's a defense that's been proven over time. There should be nothing but excitement in the air surrounding our defense."

The competition for the starting spot opposite Kampman should be exciting in and of itself, and no matter who wins it, the team appears to be developing the depth needed at outside linebacker. That depth will only help on special teams too, where linebackers often form the core of the coverage units.

As for Matthews, the draft choice picked by many as an immediate starter, hasn't cracked the first unit yet. A hamstring injury on the first day of OTAs took him out of action for two weeks, and his reps were limited upon his return last week as a precaution.

He's back to practicing at full speed this week and is exclusively at right outside linebacker, the same spot as Thompson. While acknowledging he didn't get the jump on the new defense the veterans did during the offseason program in March and April and the hamstring injury didn't help his cause, Matthews said he doesn't feel he's playing "catch-up" because of all the mental work he got while sidelined.

"It's easy to fall behind when you're not paying attention, but on the days I wasn't out there physically participating I had a script in hand and was looking at the plays at both (the right and left) positions," he said. "So I truly felt that despite not practicing I was able to get some steps on the defense.

"I don't feel like I'm a step behind at all. I'm doing what everyone else does now, and just trying to wear off those rookie mistakes."

Matthews believes he has the physical tools to play the multi-faceted role of the outside linebacker in this scheme, and he's made no secret of the fact that he's aiming to be a starter and significant contributor in his first season.

"Absolutely, I think that's everyone's goal," he said. "But as a rookie, my biggest challenge is understanding the playbook. That way when I go out on the field, I'll be able to get after it instead of being tentative out there. It's coming along, and despite missing some time, I feel I've made some dramatic improvements."

Poppinga agreed the addition of Matthews certainly makes the position group, and the team as a whole, stronger. He added that he's not getting caught up in who's going to start and play which role, because chemistry is so vital to a team's success, and his primary goal is to win.

While there's no doubting Poppinga's sincerity and focus on being a team player, that shouldn't be mistaken for the veteran simply accepting a backup or special teams role in the face of the upcoming competition. Poppinga took exactly the same approach and said many of the same things last year after signing a new contract, and then he proceeded to beat out free-agent signee Brandon Chillar to hold onto his starting job in 2008.

{sportsad300}"When I signed my contract (last spring), the starting position was going to be something I had to earn, and I signed my contract here not really worried about whether I'm a starter or not," Poppinga said. "I want to be part of a championship-caliber team. The bottom line is I have to go out and be the best Brady Poppinga possible, and how the coaches want to go and utilize that as a resource is up to them."

While working as the No. 2 left outside linebacker behind Kampman, Poppinga may have the strongest resume defending the run of those competing for playing time, and his coverage skills have steadily improved since some struggles in that area in 2006.

Asked late last season to rush the passer from a defensive end spot, his impact was minimal, but having a whole offseason and training camp to learn his new role should put him squarely in the mix as the summer evolves and he, Matthews and Thompson are closely scrutinized and evaluated.

This year's competition for Poppinga is more crowded than last year's, with a highly touted rookie in Matthews now on the scene. But Poppinga "embraces" the challenge and the way it should push everyone involved.

"Competition brings out the best in everybody, and I think the experience I had last year with Brandon Chillar made him and I better football players," Poppinga said. "If (Matthews) can do that at all levels with this team, that's only going to help our team be that much better, and it's going to help our team make a run for the championship. That's why we're all here. That's what this is really all about."

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