Sometimes a player’s presence means more to a team than simple X’s and O’s. On offense this typically comes down to the quarterback. We Packer fans saw this all the time with Brett Favre and now Aaron Rodgers. No matter how good or bad that quarterback is playing, the rest of the offense believed that they could still win because that guy with them. On defense this is often more elusive. Traditionally you could make the case that it’s the middle linebacker, but really it could be any position on defense as long as that player has the personality, skill, and reputation to become the soul of a defense.
Attitude is important in football, and critically important on the defensive side of the ball. So often tackling comes down to attitude as much as it does technique. A team wants its defense to set the tone for the game, lay big hits, and intimidate the opponent. As a result, those players who become the soul of the team become even more important to the outcome than their mere position suggests. Think about it, how bad did the Ravens defense look without Ray Lewis in the game against the Texans? Lewis is not the player he once was, still good sure…but not transcendent. Despite this eroding skill, Lewis’ mere presence was vitally important to the Raven’s D and without him there were problems. Another example would be the Bears’ defense in 2009 when Brian Urlacher went down for the year early in the season. The Bears still had the talent that was present the year before and the year after (both good years for the Bears defense) yet, their D was very average and the entire team suffered as a result. Sometimes a defense needs their leader….they need that guy who gives them their swagger and attitude.
Since 2009 Charles Woodson has been that leader of the Packers defense. He’s been that guy who supplies soul and motivation. Yes, he’s been a dynamic component of the defense…who who makes it tick….he’s also been a great playmaker, but it may be more important that he has provided that swagger for the team. Now that leadership has to be found somewhere else for the next six weeks....but where?
The most obvious candidate for the job is Clay Matthews. Matthews is one of the rising superstars of the league. He is one of those rare players who are physically gifted, but still play with a high motor, relentlessly attacking the ball no matter where it is on the field. His style of play is one that the rest of the team can feed off of, and try to mimic their own game on. The best part for the Packers is that he has shown some ability to take on this mantle of leadership. The best example of this has been his relationship with Nick Perry so far to date. Over the summer Perry could be seen shadowing around Matthews and Kevin Greene throughout training camp. Matthews took that willingness to learn and has helped Perry become a promising pass rusher and helped ease the transition to being an OLB from a college DE.
Another candidate for filling that hole of leadership is A.J. Hawk. Believe it or not, but Hawk has generally responded well to the challenge of expanding his role. Hawk has maintained his level of play from the transition from OLB in a 4-3 system to ILB in a 3-4 system. He has also been able to take on the leadership role left by Nick Barnett, both during Barnett’s injury during the 2010 season and since Barnett has left the team. It’s easy to forget that before Woodson arrived, it was Barnett that was that tone setter for the Packers and was often the field general for the D. Hawk is not quite the loud presence that Barnett was, the dynamic presence that Woodson has been, but he has shown some ability to raise his game when injuries pile up and more is expected of him. He has also shown the ability to take on leadership in the D, help call plays and get guys lined up.
The last candidate may be a surprise to you, but it’s a fairly natural fit….Morgan Burnett. Burnett has not had a great season so far. Nothing bad, but nothing great either. He’s a player who has struggled with injury, but has had his role expanded each year due to his own growth as a player as well as injuries around him I the secondary. Burnett is the most experienced safety the Packers have right now. He also has the one of the more experienced defenders in the secondary, with only Tramon Williams having as more and Sam Shields having about has much. Burnett has also had an expanded role of leadership due to his experience at safety, and the safety’s job of making calls in coverage and reading the play. As Burnett has grown the problems in communications have decreased for the Packers. This could be his time to shine and show Packernation just why Ted Thompson traded up to get him all those years ago.
Someone will have to step up and fill the void of leadership left by Woodson. If the Packers can’t find that answer then we could be in store for some disappointing performances out of the defense. The good news is that these three candidates have shown an ability to take on that mantel, and there may be one or two others (such as Tramon Williams) who could help out in that department as well.