What Is Mike Neal Doing At Outside Linebacker?

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Admittedly, the Packers can’t claim to have much depth at outside linebacker at the moment; of course they have one of the best in Clay Matthews III, another 1st round selection they are high on and hope to see marked improvement in Nick Perry and a undrafted free agent looking to make a big jump in year 2 in Dezman Moses.  But that’s pretty much it in terms of actual experience; the Packers did draft Nate Palmer, a projected outside linebacker in the 6th round from Illinois State (much to the chagrin of commenters apparently) but they also did lose Frank Zombo to Kansas City and interestingly Erik Walden to the Colts for a 4-year $16 million contract (this is after the Packers signed Walden last year to a veteran minimum contract worth $700,000).  There has been some speculation that either Brad Jones or Jamari Lattimore, both who joined the Packers as outside linebackers but where converted to inside linebacker last year, could again make the transition back to the outside.

However, one dark horse candidate making headlines in OTAs was Mike Neal.  Just from initial impressions, you have to wonder what the Packers are doing.  2012 1st round pick Nick Perry was a little bit of a “square peg” weighing in a 271 pounds at the draft, but Neal outweighs Perry by a good 25 pounds.  Add to that Neal’s inexperience in playing from a two-point stance, and the multitude of extra responsibilities outside linebackers have (most notably dropping back into coverage) and Mike Neal is probably the last guy you’d think could have a shot at playing outside linebacker. Ironically most 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL are converted 4-3 defense ends, but this is the only occasion I can think of where a college 4-3 DT has been asked to transition to 3-4 outside linebacker.

Yes the Packers are tinkerers during the offseason; they love to mix and match offensive linemen and you’ll see players line up all over the place, but at least in my opinion, most of these were just small experiments to see how players would react to a new position; after all if getting the most out of a player is the main goal of a coaching staff, it would make sense to see how much positional versatility or even positional potential each player has.  Again, I would argue that if Neal had been a complete disaster the moment he lined up at linebacker (and I don’t think that should be a fault on him), the Packers probably would have pulled the plug on that idea in a hurry.  However, it does seem like the Packers like what they have seen and are willing to expand the experiment further.

If Mike Neal does truly see some snaps at outside linebacker this year, and that’s not a given at this point, he has to replace someone, the question is who?

Mike Neal replacing Nick Perry: This would seem to be the most logical conclusion, after all you aren’t going to bench the highest paid outside linebacker in the NFL in order to throw a defense end in right?  Ironically, it might be the other way around, as Mike Neal doesn’t really offer much over Perry; Perry’s strongest suit at the moment is run defense and Neal’s combination of almost 300 pounds and a well-documented history of brute strength should make him as stout against the run.  As for pass rush Neal has shown some potential at getting to the quarterback, but then again so has Perry.  One interesting idea would be swapping Perry and Neal in obvious passing situations; Perry was publically quite hesitant to convert to outside linebacker during the draft and perhaps the Packers think he could do more damage as a down linemen, sort of like Aaron Kampman in his final year in Green Bay.

Mike Neal replacing Clay Matthews:  What possible reason could the Packers have in replacing Matthews with Neal?  Matthews is by far a better pass rusher, pass defender and as many offenses have figured out is a stalwart run defender as well.  Outside of keeping Matthews fresh, there could be any reason to replace Matthews with Neal right?  The only situation I can think of where it would make sense would be for Matthews to play inside linebacker on certain plays; while most fans think of Matthews turning a corner on a hapless offensive tackle, Matthews has actually done a lot of damage rushing interior linemen on stunts and delayed rushes, add to that his ability to cover the middle of the field and he actually makes a pretty good inside linebacker on passing downs.  A linebacker set composed of Nick Perry, Clay Matthews, Desmond Bishop/Brad Jones and Mike Neal would appear to have a lot of pass rush variability, which was something Dom Capers was successful with early on in his career, but he has stopped doing most likely due to personnel.

Mike Neal isn’t really replacing anyone: One possible answer is that the psycho package is making a comeback and Neal would be a logical candidate as the lone defensive linemen.  Last time it was really used Cullen Jenkins was often the lone defensive linemen and he alternated between a traditional 3-point stance and an “amoeba” 2-point stance where he moves around the line before the snap.  As a defensive linemen, you almost never move around that drastically before the snap  (especially from a 2-point stance), but outside linebackers do it all the time, so perhaps all this training at outside linebacker during the offseason is just trying to get Neal more experience in a 2-point stance as well as giving him some experience pass rushing from different locations.

Mike Neal is a response to Colin Kaepernick: A lot of people have been saying that shifting Neal to outside linebacker makes the team better against read-option/pistol quarterbacks, after all the Packers will face Kaepernick and RGIII to start off the season.  Personally I don’t really see the advantage, perhaps the most important thing about defending against these types of quarterbacks is awareness (point: Erik Walden still doesn’t know where Kaepernick went), and defensive linemen aren’t the most aware because there’s only so much you can see with your head to the ground and a 300+ pound offensive linemen directly in front of you.  Neal probably isn’t faster than Matthews or Perry so chasing an athletic quarterback doesn’t seem to be much of an advantage either.

Mike Neal is a decoy outside linebacker:  Could the Packers be moving Neal around to mess with opposing offenses?  Every year every team brings out new wrinkles that fans automatically assume will cause defenses around the league to work on one more thing during the offseason (hence the argument that the Packers should run a little read option/wildcat/whatever is in vogue at the moment).  Personally, I don’t think teams really have time to operate in complete subterfuge; every snap Neal takes at outside linebacker is one he could be taking at defensive end and with Neal’s long injury history and suspension for Adderall, he needs every snap he can get because he’s realistically only in his 2nd year.  Furthermore, Neal is also taking snaps away from the other outside linebackers who are more likely to take snaps; Dezman Moses is one player many people feel could make a big jump after a phenomenal training camp but up and down season.

Overall, I’m still not quite sure to make of OLB Neal; on one hand he’s definitely not your prototypical linebacker and I’m not sure the Packers don’t need him at defensive end, presumably Datone Jones will be given every opportunity to play a significant snaps and BJ Raji again figures to play a lot on the other end, but having Neal, CJ Wilson and whoever makes the team would allow for a great rotation and allow Raji in particular to get off the field every once in a while.  Stranger things have happened though, so this is definitely something to keep an eye out on.


Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.


51 thoughts on “What Is Mike Neal Doing At Outside Linebacker?

  1. Using Neal as an OLB is something like watching Alcindor (date test) bring the ball up the court – they could do it, but man did it look strange actually seeing it.

    Thomas, I agree with your third and last possible conclusions.

    The supposed “switch” to OLB could just be a move by MM and KG to punk other teams and have them game plan and account for a mirage. Giving him some reps may allow for some use in some bizarre personnel package, but with the loss of a couple of previous starting but admittedly weak guys at the position, I agree that taking snaps from Moses and Palmer doesn’t make whole lot of sense unless there’s some meat on that bone.

    This should be interesting.

    1. Actually I argued that I don’t think it’s a move to “punk” other teams, frankly teams have enough to worry about in the offseason outside of countering a specific personnel on one team and even if it was a punk, I’m not sure what teams would do differently, unless you think Neal commands a double team where Perry would not; my opinion is both will be single blocked cause the double is going to Matthews

    2. Could be a trend. the jets are doing the same thing with 6’6″ 290lb Quinton Coples. In their case, no grey area – he is now listed as a full-time OLB.

  2. Howzabout prep’n big Mike for inside LB and having one or d’other of those mentioned who could/might/have played OLB – and have better coverage skills and experience – move outside,. Agree Capers and MikeMac are tinkering some but creativity and deception, not to mention using players where their skills -and potential – best shine is just good coaching. Even if it all goes back to square one, we learned something.

    1. Presumably if they were preparing him for inside linebacker, they would be giving him snaps at inside linebacker and not outside linebacker. Inside linebackers have probably even more coverage responsibilities than outside linebackers, so Neal is probably at a disadvantage there as well.

    1. The reason they are trying Neal at OLB is a guy who made the same transition at Pittsburgh named James Harrison — he was a pretty good player for a long time, added considerable pass rush ability, and gave the Steelers 3-4 a chance to put 4 big bangers up front against the run without losing the flexibility against the pass.

      I am not too worried about the ‘downsides’ that people are focussing on. They are carrying 11 down linemen and 6 OLB where they normally carry something like 9 and 8, respectively. So I don’t think any OLB are missing practice snaps, but this way Neal and the rest of the DL still get a reasonable amount of work.

      Second, Neal typically comes in to camp a little lighter than his season weight. He was a small school guy who wasn’t as big at DT as most. So the size mismatch isn’t as odd as people may think.

      I see Neal rotating at OLB to back up Perry, while moses principally backs up Matthews and Palmer (or somebody) is a developmental project. I don’t think there is much chance Neal is actually worse than Walden or 2012’s version of Zombo.

      1. Poor Ed. You haven’t learned that a reasoned response makes no difference when it comes to cow.

        But the rest of us do appreciate the great points you made. 😉

        1. “reasoned response”????

          1 – James Harrison never weighed 290. that’s a ridiculous comparison.

          2 – Purdue is not a “small school”.

          3 – Neal will never rotate at OLB… that’s silly.

          Other than that…

    2. Like I mentioned, they wouldn’t be keeping him out there if they didn’t like what they saw and most cases the coaching staff is quick to pull the plug. They’re putting him out there for a reason, the question is why and it’s not just wasting time.

  3. I like the idea of the psycho package possibility, that would be helpful against the read option and the running QBs by getting our fastest players on the field

    1. Is Neal really one of the faster guys on the defense? If you really wanted to counter the read option and running QBs, I would have thought Woodson or someone more in his physical mold would have been a better option.

  4. Like Evan, I like the idea of getting our best players on the field at the same time. I like the idea of getting our biggest, fastest and strongest guys against guys like Kaepernick and RG3. Having Perry and Neal on the left side allows us great flexibility on who to send, who to drop into coverage and who to confuse the blocking with. This is the way of the modern defense and is akind to the read option on the offensive side of the ball.

    1. Presumably Perry and Neal would have been on the field at the same time, but if Neal is at OLB, do you put Perry at DE? To me that seems like you are now fitting two players in ill fitting positions.

  5. I think the obvious answer wasn’t addressed: insurance policy. As stated at the beginning of the article, the backups to CM3 and Perry are a second year walk-on and a rookie. And Perry is coming off a season-ending injury. This strikes me as a simple case of “Hmm, we don’t want to get caught with our pants around our ankles, we should make sure we have a few other guys who can step in and play OLB in a pinch.”

    1. Perhaps, but if insurance was the overall thought, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore would make more logical candidates. First off they both have played OLB for the Packers and they look like outside linebackers. Second, inside linebacker has a lot of depth and moving one to the outside wouldn’t be a huge issue, the same can’t be said about the D-line, especially not next year.

  6. All that I can take from this shenanigan going on is the faith in Perry to be a solid LOLB has diminished and the hope that the ‘Kracken’ can lend a tentacle to the spot is a reach at best.

    Two wrongs won’t make a right..Perry is a 4-3 DE and Neal is a 3-4 DE and neither will be successful as an 3-4 OLB.

    Sure,we may see an ‘ooh and aah’ as like the wide open untouched sack of Luck but there will not be enough to erase that both are fake in the OLB scheme and will be quick to look the fools in it.

    As always…I hope I have to eat crow but this will be a challenge to even get it on the plate for serving.

    1. I highly doubt the Packers have lost faith in Perry after only one year, especially one where he was transitioning to a new position and got hurt mid-season. Keep in mind the Packers held onto Justin Harrell onto the bitter end, so the Packers will bet on Perry for way longer than just a year

    2. I am glad you’re being open minded about all the Perry crow you’ll be eating by week 7!

      1. I don’t think so oppy… For one, Matthews was having a great start to the season, leading in sacks when Perry went down. Was Perry lost in coverage? Yes! Did he really only show one pass rushing move (Bull Rush), yes. But after a total of what, 6 games before he went on IR. After hurting the wrist in the very first regular season game of his NFL career, I think it’s a little early to give up on the guy. It’s all made me nervous, talk that the Pack still need someone to play opposite Matthews but I still think Perry can do it and bring 10 sacks to the table this season. Everybody mentions James Harrison. Harrison was cut twice by the Steelers, once by the Ravens before he stayed with the Steelers and became the beast he is. I think the whole thing with Neal is like the old 49ers defense and even the Packers with Tim Harris I believe. Didn’t they call it the elephant position? They move Neal all over the place, but playing standing up, like a OLB. I would think Capers is definitely on the hot seat and is just tinkering. Perry and Matthews will be the Packers starters at OLB and they’ll have 25 sacks between the two of them, and I’m not smoking or drinking nothing cow42!

        1. I have liked what i’ve seen of Perry and think he’s going to be getting a lot more respect by week 7 of this season, is what i was getting at.

        2. I’m not sure you can have a elephant player in a 3-4, since a elephant player is a 4-3 defensive end who can play with his hand off the ground and also drop back in coverage…which is exactly what a 3-4 OLB does. Even in a 4-3 Neal would more likely be a DT (which he was in college) than a DE, and then add to that he is most likely going to be a liability in coverage

      2. Since you have no doubt as to Perrys’ expected great play..your plate of crow will be much more bitter to eat than mine will be…I’m pessimistic with a tinge of hope,you are door closed certain.
        PS…another injury isn’t a usable excuse for another wait and see…

        1. No, I’m just optimistic, I can handle disappointment, but it seems for many people being convinced of a negative outcome and languishing over pre-determined failure is easier to cope with than having and optimistic outlook that may not be met.

          Ultimately, I think the difference between our opinions is simply that I see a talent and skillset in Perry I find encouraging and I believe there is a learning curve that is fairly standard in the transformation of a tweener DE to 3-4 OLB and see nothing that indicates Perry won’t be able to make that transition, while it appears that your take on Perry is based on the assumption that he took the field last year as a finished product.

          Time will tell, and quite frankly, the odds of a player- ANY player- failing in the NFL are much higher than the odds of them succeeding. I guess I just don’t mind making bold predictions. It’s fun, I don’t mind being wrong, and it’s not a crushing blow to my very being if things don’t work out.

          Go Perry!

          1. How does my view of Perry not being a 3-4 OLB state he is a finished(failed) product?I have often said that IMO,his talent/ability is in a 4-3.

  7. Possibly they’re trying to open another roster spot if Neal can successfully play this hybrid DL/OLB role(maybe PS Palmer or something and then keep an extra o- or d-lineman).

    If a smaller faster guy such as Perry struggled covering receivers imagine what Neal will do. I don’t know if there would be a way for Neal to “hand off” a receiver to another more agile defender, but absent that, there will be a lot of wincing by us fans as we watch Neal trail receivers by five yards. And believe me, the opponents will find this mismatch in a hurry.

    1. Chances are good if Mike Neal were to ever play OLB, he would never drop back more than 5 yards, think of what Raji did when he scored the interception for a touchdown against Chicago in 2010. He’s not going to be asked to cover anyone for very long, and will almost always be in zone.

  8. The writer is making the assumption that (our beloved) Packers know what the hell they are doing on defense…

  9. Capers seems to like to have that player that can do it all and move around the field. Woodson is no longer with the team but why not use your new highest paid defensive player. Neal’s job might be to a strong body to set the edge occasionally to free up Mathews to make a play.

    1. Actually that’s something new that makes a lot of sense to me, kinda of like the situation I mentioned where Matthews lines up at ILB.

  10. They used Neal in OLB type situations last year. It was a sort of modified psycho package. He’d drop off the line, twist with Clay on blitzes, etc.

    I think having Neal and Perry on the edges could be interesting. You have two strong yet relatively mobile guys who can hopefully play in space. (Obviously they need to improve in these areas).

    This way they can either drop, set the edge, or rush the QB. Having to stout guys on the edge lets their Packers have their cake and eat it too (a 4-3 look in a 3-4 scheme). Neal and Perry could stay home, have Clay drop, or whatever.

  11. I think it really comes down to a simple attempt to give Mike Neal as much opportunity to get on the field as possible.

    They like the pass rush ability Neal brings, which is great in nickle. In base, it’s going to be Raji, Grease, and Datone Jones. Neal is probably the second strongest lineman (behind Pickett), and he’s probably the second most athletic and agile (behind Jones.)

    I’m sure Capers would love to have Neal on the field as much as possible.

    I feel the need to say this again- I don’t think this is just a stunt. Just over a year ago there was talk of moving Neal to OLB (from inside the organization, not fan speculation), but it never came to fruition. This isn’t some ‘on-a-whim’ stunt. There has been thought put into this. They really think there’s something to be had out of this.

    1. I would agree, practice time is too limited with the new CBA to really spend it messing around with outlandish schemes, unless of course you actually use it in the season. I would have argued the likely DL rotation for running plays would be Pickett, Raji, Wilson and probably Josh Boyd while passing plays would be Neal, Jones, Daniels and Worthy when healthy so I’m not sure Neal was going to factor in at base either way

      1. Right- Neal wouldn’t make sense on the DL in base- but he’s a very unique combination of strength and athleticism on the Packers’ defense. So where can you find an opportunity to get him on the field, even if only rarely, while in a 3-4 look? That is why I think they are giving a shot at cross
        training him at OLB

      2. The issue with your run/pass rotation is that it makes the Packers keep 8 players at a position (DL) where they normally keep 6.

        It also means that the enemy offense knows what the Packers defense is expecting on every play — you need a couple of players who can play both run and pass. Right now those guys are Raji, Worthy, Jones, and Neal. You still want Grease to anchor the line even on most passing downs, so putting Neal in the OLB mix will let them get 3 or 4 of those ‘two-way- guys in the game at the same time.

  12. Instead of a 3-4, a 4-3 or a nickel, I believe some coaches want the best 11 guys they have dressed up out there given the down and yardage.

    Neal is pretty good when not injured and if he is better than the 12th man, you put him out there.

    Our defense has been dreadful the last 2 years, so if I am Capers I try something different. Many new things as a matter of fact.

    1. the defense last year wasn’t really all that bad, I think they finished around middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency (which is pretty good considering they were the worst defense the year before). As for the 12th man, I would argue Neal is probably not the next best guy, Desmond Bishop (assuming Jones and Hawk are the starters this season) probably takes that role. After that I might even put Dezman Moses after that especially if you are worried about the pistol offense

      1. I don’t agree with moses as the solution to the Pistol, at least not yet.

        The way to stop the pistol is to have a big guy who can set the edge *and* push the pocket. Push upfield to make the QB read the defense before the offense really sets up, with the certain knowledge that if he keeps the ball he *will* get hammered. So when he hands off, that player sets the edge and forces the run inside for the ILBs to tackle after (hopefully) short gains.

        If Bishop is healthy (not a sure thing yet) I think the starters there are Bishop and Jones, with Hawk as the 13th or 14th guy.

  13. Maybe they want to give Neal a chance to work on more outside rushing moves, or to work with Greene a bit on rush moves. And getting a few reps in coverage can’t hurt.

    Also, do they say what formations he was practicing at OLB? Goal line D?

  14. As far as I know no one has mentioned if he’s playing OLB in any specific package, I’m not sure he’s even running with the 1’s when he’s a OLB. It would seem odd however to give Neal experience rushing from a two point stance if he’s going to always be in a 3 point stance. As Aaron Kampman can attest, just because you are good at rushing from a 3 or 4 point stance doesn’t mean it translates to when you stand up

    1. Maybe they’re hoping that in some situations it will get him lined up against a TE or RB? I like the notion raised that it might be in response to setting the edge against speedy QBs. Whatever the case, I think it’s a function of the psycho package more than anything else.

    2. You’re right, it doesn’t necessarily translate …although in Kampman’s case, he WAS good at rushing the passer from a two point stance. He didn’t like it, and he didn’t get the glory stats (sacks), but he was leading the league in QB hurries and hits before his injury.

      1. Lawrence Guy and Walden? Is there someone over there that used to work for the Packers front office in pro personnel or scouting maybe?

  15. Doesn’t one of our OLB’s pass rush on every passing down. Two years ago, didn’t CM3 practically play DE in passing situations, mostly vs the RT? Neal / Perry taking on that role, would do two things, first allow CM3 to not take such a pounding from someone often outweighing him by 100 lbs, and second, CM3 would become the unpredictable one, playing a little pass covereage, a little inside blitz, a little blitz outside of everyone, almost on obvious passing situations, like Woodson in his heyday, providing plays in a multitude of ways. If that is the case, makes sense to have two guys, perry and Neal, rather than just one in perry.

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