Injuries Took Their Toll on the Packers Linebacker Corps

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D.J. Smith Injury 2012
The injury to D.J. Smith was one of many among the Green Bay Packers linebackers.

When the injuries started compounding for the Green Bay Packers this year, fans didn’t seem to flinch. Too fresh in their memories was the story of 2010, when the Packers overcame several key injuries to become Super Bowl champions. “Next man up” became the rally cry for the team, its fans, and the media.

The motto’s resurgence in 2012 showed the confidence of Packers Nation in Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy’s ability to add and develop depth throughout the team. While concerns still brewed in the back of our minds, they were overshadowed by what we’ve come to expect from Green Bay’s second string players.

No more Desmond Bishop? Bring in D.J. Smith. Now Smith goes down? Get Brad Jones in there. Lose Cedric Benson, James Starks, and Brandon Saine? Promote Alex Green and DuJuan Harris, then re-sign Ryan Grant from free agency. Even undrafted rookie Don Barclay surprised us with his ability to take over for Bryan Bulaga and not get Aaron Rodgers killed.

The specific team building philosophy of Thompson and McCarthy have allowed the Green Bay Packers to succeed even when some of their best players end up on injured reserve. Many other teams would struggle to handle such losses, whereas the Packers push through, fill in the holes, and still win their division.

Unfortunately, with all this confidence in the “next man up” mentality, we tend to lose sight of the fact that Green Bay’s offensive, defensive, and special teams units still lose some of their effectiveness from these starters going down.

In 2012, the position group that suffered the most was by far the linebacker corps. If you compare this season’s final roster to last year’s, the differences are striking. Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk didn’t go anywhere, despite Matthews missing a few games; however, the losses of Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith were huge.

Yes, Brad Jones filled in admirably, but he is not the playmaker that Bishop is. (Nor is Smith.) Desmond Bishop is perhaps the biggest playmaker on the defense outside of Clay Matthews. His tough and ruthless attitude brings a punch that helps to balance out the lack of plays made by Hawk. While the “assignment sure” Hawk has been a perennial disappointment to many fans, he and Bishop complement each other extremely well. Without one, the other suffers.

To round out the problems among the linebackers, we have to bring up the outside linebacker spot opposite Clay Matthews. It might be true that Erik Walden still held his position from last year, yet it’s also true that we were all calling for his spot to be upgraded in the offseason.

That’s why Ted Thompson selected Nick Perry with his first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He was a player intended to bolster the pass rush and keep contain on the edge. Sure, there would be a learning curve – especially in pass coverage – but by the end of the season, he would have been a clear step up. Instead, his injury put him on reserve in November, and Walden was back to being the de facto starter.

For a group that we said needed a lot of improvement from 2011, they actually ended up taking a step backwards this year. The emergence of Dezman Moses was a positive addition to the group, but even he wasn’t enough to make up for the even bigger losses.

So why didn’t it seem as bad as last year, despite these personnel changes? My gut tells me the improvements among the remaining defensive units helped cover the losses. The replacement of Charlie Peprah and Casey Hayward’s rookie flashes helped bolster the secondary, and the defensive line finally got a lift. Mike Neal was actually healthy for most of the year, B.J. Raji stepped up his game, and the additions of Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels helped keep the primary starters fresh.

The silver lining to all of this is that most of these linebackers should be ready to play come next season. We might actually see the unit we wanted to have instead of the unit we ended up with. In addition to players returning from injury, rookie players like Moses and Perry should show some improvement going into their second year.

Green Bay’s playoff loss can’t be shouldered by the linebackers alone, but it was a significant factor in that game and throughout the season.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • BartyS

    I like Desmond Bishop. But he is no All-Pro, and if anyone thinks the D was fine last year when he and Hawk supposedly complemented one another so well they are delusional. The D was even worse last season.

    Bishop hopefully returns healthy next season but the problems on the D go much, much deeper than one average to above-average LB.

    • Chad Toporski

      While that is certainly up for debate, unless you can say Brad Jones is better than Desmond Bishop, then I think the premise of the article still stands.

    • Brian

      I agree. Other than CM3, we have no linebacker on the roster today that is near his ability. To run a 3-4, you need an outstanding LB crew. See SF.

      • Oppy

        You’re right, Clay is the most talented LB on the roster.. But there’s a reason he came out the gates like a sack-demon before cooling off and coming back down to the planet.

        That reason is Perry collapsing the pocket from the opposing side.

        • Brian

          I hope Nick Perry continues to develop into an above average OLB. Enough of the Zombo’s, Walden’s, etc.

  • Big T

    I agree with you Chad, Bishop in there would’ve made a huge impact. No doubt about it…

  • Tarynfor12

    This LB group less CM3,is like playing chess with checkers.

  • http://cox.com/phx retiredgrampa

    Most other teams wish they our problems instead of theirs.

    • JimR_in_DC

      Never compare to the worse/worst, unless that’s what one aspires to.

  • GBPDAN

    it would have been nice to see Perry finish the year and gain experience. He wasnt more then a bull rusher , but maybe he could have developed more pass rushing moves by the end of the year. He most certainly had the physicality 2 set the edge.

    • Oppy

      When he learns the position and settles in to the scheme, watch out. forget.. Perry is VERY quick and agile for a big man. He hasn’t shown it as a pro yet.. but when he figures out what he’s doing and doesn’t have to think but instead just react, people will stand up and take notice.

      • Oppy

        (people) forget..

  • PatMc

    If Perry had finished the Year we’d be bitching about Perry not containing. According to the LB Coach Kevin Greene, Erik Walden was not responsible for the contain failure. KG reviewed the film and said Erik Walden did exactly what he was coached to do. If Perry did as coached he would have done the same.

    Either Woodson, Tramon or Bishop failed in executing (or a combination of all three).

    I personally didn’t like Walden but this past month or so, I’m seeing a gamer that is performing. Maybe he isn’t a CLAY but then who is? Of course that kid from Texas or USC would be a nice asset.

    • Brian

      I read what Greene said about Walden…hard to believe. Do you think he was just sticking up for his guy?

      • Sven

        Either way Walden is a good player. He can be down right excellent when he is fresh. Maybe he is not what we ultimately want in our starter, but he has been there when we needed him to step up. I wouldn’t want to see him go.

      • PatMc

        No, I think he is being honest after evaluating the plays. Sven is right below, maybe walden isn’t the starter we want but he has show some real good agressiveness the last month or so.

  • Oppy

    Terrell Manning

  • http://grizzlymitch@bresnan.net montanacheezhead

    Hawk is a liability. He is slow and ineffective. He could be a good situational linebacker but we have not had that luxery. That spot has been stale for two years and it needs a change.

    • Lucas

      Physically slow-no. Mentally…perhaps a tick…and that’s enough in the NFL.
      AJ flourishes when paired with another good ILB. Look at the plays he made in the beginning of the year. Brad Jones…a little less than good. Defense all works together.

      • skyler

        So are you ready to pay AJ Hawk over $5 million per year for his production? If you are, then I have land to sell you in Iran.

  • Wagszilla

    Fire. The. Strength. And. Conditioning. Coach.

    I’ll go look up the stats but I’d bet the Packers are above average for season-ending injuries.

  • Ron LC

    Injuries are a problem to all teams. Unfortunately, injuries seem to happen to the Pack more often, to more impact players, at a greater severity than most any other team. WHY?

    Year after year it’s the same damn song. It’s time for Murphy to get in touch with this issue. Something about the training, conditioning, player selection or all of the above is causing this situation. What do they have to lose by getting some outside experts to review the team top to bottom. And try to FIX IT!

    • Brian

      Agree. It’s time to do a full scale review of their strength & conditioning along with nutrition. Something is outta whack with all of the injuries over the past 3-4 yrs. Maybe it’s the water!

  • Since ’61

    There aren’t any Nitschkes on our linebacking Corp, even with CM3. However, I would like to make it through just season where the group that we currently have stays healthy. I would like to see CM3 and Perry at OLB’s with Bishop and DJ Smith as the ILB’s. Keep Brad Jones, Dezman Moses, Terrell Manning and Lattimore as the backups. Trade or release Hawk, Walden, Zombo and Francois. This should leaves us with depth, experience, toughness, speed and youth. If there is a good linebacker available in the draft add him to training camp. It’s time to solidify the LB corps and get a healthy season under this group.
    Thanks, Since ’61

    • Ron LC

      That would be a good group! Nitchke, Robinson, Forrester yah! Not sure if I remember right about Robby in 61′.

      • Since ’61

        Ron LC – thanks for the feedback. FYI,Robinson was the Packers 1st round choice in 1963. I think that Lombardi’s best LB group was Nitschke, Robinson and Lee Roy Caffey. Caffey made some big plays in the Ice Bowl. However, we would not lose much having Forrester in there.
        There is a new book out called Lombardi’s Left Side, Robinson and Adderly, I hope to have a chance to read it soon. I notice that you make good contributions to this blog. Keep’em coming. Thanks, Since ’61

  • Pete Kliman

    Excellent conversation.The loss of Collins and Woodson aging has led to this defensive down fall.However, there is some hope. I hope you’re right about Perry, Oppy ,because that would be key. I know the measurable are there ,but they didn’t transfer to the field, yet.It’s strange , last year the pass killed us this year the rush. I guess we shored up the secondary ,but our LB’s were exposed this year.

    • Kevn

      Should be interesting to see how all the first year players take a step forward this offseason. I wouldn’t expect TT to address issues he believes he addressed in the last draft. That’s why I expect a OL, WR, RB, and LB to be selected this year. Could see him going with a high round ILB if one is available.

  • Slim11

    Several seasons back I was pushing for Bishop and Chillar to start together inside. I didn’t even think Bishop and Hawk would be a viabale combination. Now, I wonder about the combination of Bishop and Jones inside.

    Hawk played better with Bishop on the field. Would Jones play better than Hawk starting beside Bishop inside?

  • SDPackfan

    I could not agree more that AJ Hawk’s injuries contributed to yet another year of ZERO turnover plays (no forced or recovered fumbles and no Ints) for him.

    Oh wait, the article said he wasn’t actually injured. Who could tell the difference?

  • Scott 1956

    I’m tired of this team being one of the most injured EVERY year! Get a trainer that knows what he’s doing. How many more “hamstring pulls” that keep players out for a month do we need to see? This team needs an upgrade in the LB’s and D-Line, bigtime.As well as O-Line, which is just really bad! 2nd most sacks given up, and cannot run block, perfect!