It's not quite mid-season with only seven games, but I read this article regarding the expanded role of LB Brandon Chillar. I didn't notice LB A.J. Hawk during the Indianapolis game, but I wasn't really looking for him either. All the linebackers have been mostly invisible this season, which might be the single biggest reason the run defense has been awful in 2008. This comment by Pete Dougherty really surprised me:
"With Hawk slowed most of this season by chest and groin injuries, the Packers recently deemed Chillar better in pass coverage and put him in their nickel defense against Indianapolis. That meant Chillar played and Hawk sat almost the entire game against the Colts’ three-receiver personnel and no-huddle offense."
Chillar is better than Hawk in pass coverage? LB Nick Barnett didn't agree:
“Any one of the LBs will be able to cover these tight ends or any tight end,” said Barnett, the Packers’ one linebacker who now never leaves the field. “A.J. had his injury at the time (against Indianapolis) and it was a better fit to put Chillar in, but I think A.J. can cover just as well as Chillar can. I don’t make the decisions, and they’re both good LBs. That’s what they brought (Chillar) here for, in case something like that happened.”
As a rookie in 2006, Hawk did struggle some in pass coverage, but he clearly improved in 2007. Hawk has seemed fine in 2008, considering the injuries he's been playing through. Chillar has worked hard and is good in pass coverage, but he doesn't have great speed and often is a step behind in coverage. He's solid, but he shouldn't be playing ahead of Hawk.
LB A.J. Hawk 2008 vs. 2007 stats:
Tackles don't really tell much about a linebacker. If a linebacker has a lot of tackles, it might mean the team's offense sucks and the defense is playing more than they should. Or the defense sucks and can't get off the field, but someone has to make all those tackles after the running back busts out for another 10 yard gain. But Hawk is on pace to only record around 70 tackles which is well off his 2007 season. Actually it's even worse because his role has decreased so much that he's only recorded 7 tackles in the last 4 games. Have the Packers given up on the 5th overall pick in 2006? Maybe his injuries are holding him back, but again Barnett would disagree:
“I don’t think he’s struggling,” Barnett said. “It’s unfortunate, (his play) isn’t showing up (in the games) too much. I don’t see anything wrong that he’s doing. He’s not playing a lot. I don’t see anything watching the film where I say, ‘He should have made this play.’ There don’t seem to be a lot of opportunities.
LB Nick Barnett 2008 vs. 2007 stats:
While Hawk has been effectively benched, Barnett still plays on every down so his statistical collapse is even more pronounced. The tackles are down and it's not a statistical fluke, he's just not filling the gaps and tackling the running backs like he's done for the past few seasons. He's been good in pass coverage for the past few seasons too, but he's recorded no pass defenses or INTs this season. No sacks either. His only notable play is one forced fumble.
LB Brady Poppinga 2008 vs. 2007 stats:
Not much change from last season, but he remains the weakest member of the starting lineup. He can stop the run, but he doesn't provide much in pass coverage and doesn't rush the passer. He's making GM Ted Thompson's decision to give him a $17 million contract last July look dumber every week. LB Desmond Bishop is making $390,000 this season, and the drop off from Poppinga to Bishop is nothing. Hell, Bishop might be better if he ever got the chance.
LB Brandon Chillar in 2008:
It doesn't matter how he did back in 2007 in St. Louis. One explanation for the drop in statistical measures for Barnett and Hawk might be the increased playing time given to Chillar, but he's not putting up huge numbers either. I wasn't expecting Chillar to eat into Barnett's or Hawk's production, so it's a sign that something has gone wrong in the linebacking core.
This isn't an awful group of players, but as Barnett was entering the prime of his career, and Hawk entered into his 3rd NFL season, I was expecting the linebackers to be better in 2008. Instead, Barnett and Hawk are having their worst seasons. Poppinga and Chillar haven't done anything wrong or unexpected this season, but they remain the worst starters on defense. It's even more painful because this summer there was talk that the defensive playbook was going to be opened up to allow Barnett and Hawk to blitz more this season. Instead, the duo have been nearly invisible. It's been hard to watch RB Ryan Grant flop, but it's been even harder to watch Barnett become a below average middle linebacker. That alone has made this unit the biggest disappointment of the season.