Linebackers provide Pack depth charge
“We’re weeks away from making those calls,” coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday.
One of the most pleasant surprises for the Packers has been their depth at linebacker. Brandon Chillar, who has been filling in with the first-team defense while Nick Barnett recovers from a knee injury, has arguably been the team’s best linebacker during camp, according to McCarthy. And Desmond Bishop is beginning to show that he’s more than a special teams ace.
With room for four starting linebackers in the Packers’ new 3-4 scheme, as many as eight players are jockeying for top spots.
“You wish you had that at every position,” first-year defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think all of those guys will have some role in different packages.”
About the only linebacker whose starting job appears to be safe is Aaron Kampman, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end who was moved to left-side outside linebacker in the offseason. The other outside linebacker spot is up for grabs.
Lingering injuries will keep Jeremy Thompson and rookie Clay Matthews, who opened camp competing for the starting spot, from playing in a preseason game for the second straight week. McCarthy ruled them out for Saturday’s home game against Buffalo.
Their prolonged absences have allowed Brady Poppinga, a starter in Green Bay’s old 4-3 system, to stake a claim on a starting spot.
“Whoever comes back is going to have to beat Brady out of there,” Capers said.
McCarthy is big on players being available, and he singled out Kampman and Poppinga when asked for his opinion on who has stood out among the group of linebackers.
“To me, the best ones are the ones that are always out there,” McCarthy said. “So, I can’t say enough about Aaron Kampman and Brady Poppinga. They’ve taken every snap in training camp; they’ve done an outstanding job.”
McCarthy also praised the performances of Chillar and Bishop, who are pushing hard to unseat veteran starting incumbents Barnett and A.J. Hawk, a pair of first-round draft picks, at inside linebacker.
“Their preparation, their attitude, their ability, everything they’ve done is starter quality,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said of Chillar and Bishop.
Chillar signed with the Packers as a free agent and was a part-time starter as an outside linebacker last year. His versatility of rushing the passer and excelling in pass coverage has jibed with the new defensive scheme playing the inside position.
“He’s one of those guys that you’re going to try to be as creative as possible in trying to find ways to exploit his talents,” Moss said.
Bishop, who had a career-high 15 special teams tackles last season, has a knack for making hard-hitting, big-time plays on the field when he’s been given an opportunity. He did so again in the Packers’ first preseason game, a 17-0 win over Cleveland.
Bishop relieved Hawk in the first half and delivered four quarterback hits, a sack and an interception.
“He packs a pretty good wallop when he hits ‘em,” Capers said. “Our inside linebacker position, we’ve got good competition going on there, and in my mind, that’s what makes for a good football team.”
-- McCarthy is hopeful rookie DT B.J. Raji will play Saturday. Raji, the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, missed the first two weeks of camp as a contract holdout and practiced for the first time Monday. “We’ll work him tonight and tomorrow,” McCarthy said between the team’s two practices Thursday. “My goal is to see how he comes out of these next two practices. I fully anticipate him ready to go if everything goes good tonight and tomorrow.”
-- DT Johnny Jolly, who aggravated an ankle injury in the first preseason game, might be able to play Saturday.
-- RB Kregg Lumpkin returned to practice after suffering a shoulder injury in Saturday’s game. Still out were Thompson, Matthews, WRs James Jones (hamstring) and JaRon Harris (groin), DT Justin Harrell (back) and CB Pat Lee (back). S Anthony Smith didn’t practice in the morning after aggravating a groin injury.