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.