Who is up next? That is the burning question facing the Packers at the inside linebacker position. Right now the Packers haven’t made a move, and even though D.J. Smith is out for the season, there is no real answer for who is going to take his place on the roster (once he goes to IR) or in the lineup. Now this is two different questions, so let’s take a moment to focus on the one most pressing for this weekend….who is going to be playing on the field?
Right now reports are that coach McCarthy is playing coy with the media about this particular question. "We’ll let you see that on Sunday" tends to be the main quote coming out about what is going to be done. That said, there are a few possibilities of who is the next man up. Let’s go through some of the options.
Brad Jones. Jones is a third year man who has just moved to the inside linebacker spot this offseason. He played well in spot duty against the Texans once D.J. Smith came out. He also played well for the injured Aaron Kampan during his 2009 rookie campaign. Traditionally Jones has been pretty good in coverage and very good against the run. He’s also the guy who has the most on the field time than all the replacements. Right now he’s probably the lead dog for the starting spot.
Robert Francois. There’s a very odd Coen brother film called The Man Who Wasn’t There, basically about a guy who gets over his head but consistently gets out of trouble because people just forget he’s around. This gist of this movie fits with Francois for me. Francois has the most experience at the position than all of the replacements. When he’s been called on he’s done pretty well (last year he was the starter for a two game stretch while A.J. Hawk recovered from injury). He’s also a guy that so many of us just forget about because he’s primarily been a special teams contributor. The good news is that when he was in the lineup he was stronger in pass coverage than Smith, although he did not have quite as physical of play as Smith. Right now that could be good with Hawk playing like a madman, but still allowing the big play over the middle once in a while.
Jamari Lattimore. Lattimore is similar to Jones because he is another OLB making the transition to ILB. The main difference though is that Lattimore has mainly done special teams work rather than on the field experience with the defense. That said, he may have had the best training camp and preseason out of the entire linebacker unit and has performed well when he’s had the chance. The problem is that he hasn’t had the chance so far this season. Lattimore sneaking into the lineup just may be that pleasant surprise that energizes the defense.
Terrell Manning. Manning is a guy who captures the imagination of many Packer fans. He was a relatively low round pick, but the Packers did trade up to get him and he was considered a bit of a steal by many draft experts. Then he completely disappeared in camp. Later this was explained by his suffering a concussion and a very rare disease, but still the damage was done for his ability to contribute this season. Right now he may be too far behind to get some real on the field time and contribute….but then again you never know. I would still bet more on next year for Manning than this year.
Clay Matthews. You read that right. I’m not talking about a permanent move mind you, rather just expect an increase in the amount of times you see the Claymaker move to the inside….especially on passing downs. One of the most successful packages this year has been the new look "Psycho" package with Jerel Worthy the down lineman and Nick Perry, Matthews, and Dezman Moses lining up to attack the passer. This package can even continue to be effective while Perry heals up with so many guys with OLB experience ready to come in and contribute. The real secret to this sort of use of Matthews is going to be the play of Erik Walden. If Walden can continue to play as well as he has this year then it shouldn’t be a problem. If Walden’s play drops off since Perry isn’t pushing him anymore than we could be in for a severe drop off in our pass rush no matter where Matthews lines up.
Charles Woodson. On Sunday night you heard lots about how Woodson was being used like an outside linebacker. It’s true, Woodson’s aggressive play and tackling ability does give the Packers the advantage of using him in this capacity. With so many of our current ILB’s a bit raw at the position mixed with the rise of so many young secondary personnel (Casey Hayward, Sam Shields, Davon House, Jerron McMillian, etc.) the Packers could slide Woodson inside to even more of a LB role to give a hybrid dime look. Imagine a 3-3-5 look with Woodson playing about where Smith would line up. Or on long downs it could be a 2-3-6. These formations could work with the talent the Packers have and still allow the team to effectively stuff the run.
The good news about all of this is that the Packers have options to fill in that last ILB spot. The bad news is that so many of the more creative options are also tied into other injuries (e.g. the Perry injury, the Shields injury, and the House injury). The Packers have suffered big blows before and found players who have stepped up and made a name for themselves. This is what saw the rise of Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith in the first place. Hopefully Jones, Francois, or Lattimore can do the same. If not then I’m happy we have a mad scientist like Dom Capers back there to cook something up to cover this otherwise gaping hole in the defense.