Frank Zombo grew up about a half-hour from Detroit in Sterling Heights, Mich. As a kid, he proudly wore a Herman Moore jersey. To help his youth soccer team, he worked at a concession stand when the Lions played at the Silverdome.
But when Zombo wasn't drafted after a standout career as a defensive end at Central Michigan, he jumped at the opportunity to sign with the Packers. The Packers, needing to add to their collection of outside linebackers, signed three players to play that position after the draft. Only Zombo even made it to training camp.
"I saw a kid that wanted to learn," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "He was really wanting to learn. He was asking a lot of questions. That's what I remember about Zombo initially. He was always in my ear and was trying to pick up as much as he could on defense. He was asking questions constantly, and that hasn't changed."
Zombo felt like he was living the dream during training camp, including a sack of the Colts' Peyton Manning. When Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga were lost for the season, the only option remaining was Zombo. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers admitted to being a little nervous about entrusting a key position to a rookie who was a relative neophyte to the wide-ranging skill-set required of an outside linebacker.
"Probably like you are anytime you put a new guy in there," Capers said of his apprehension. "Zombo's kind of come out of nowhere from where he started. Once you're around Zombo and you get to know him and you watch him in the meetings and you watch how much it bothers him if he makes a mistake -- if you have to correct him, he doesn't want to make the same mistake again."
As the starter-by-default after Poppinga and Jones were put on injured reserve on Oct. 26 and 27, respetively, Zombo said he had to "grow up really fast." He's done that by playing surprisingly steady. He made his fifth consecutive start on Sunday against San Francisco. According to Greene, Zombo didn't commit a single mental or assignment error against the 49ers.
"I graded out at a 98 percent," Zombo said. "My only negative play was the one when I came around and beat my tackle and I missed the sack when he spun outside. That was the only negative play, and it wasn't really even that bad of a play. I understand what I'm doing and I think that's why I'm playing better."
Capers applauded Zombo's ability to stop the run, which shouldn't be a surprise considering Zombo's background as a collegiate defensive end. In the passing game, Zombo left Central Michigan as the school's second-leading pass rusher with 25.5 sacks. He's got four this season, including one in each of the last two games. Where Greene is surprised is how well Zombo is playing the pass.
"You see him drop into coverage – you see him doing some good things in coverage," Greene said. "He's getting depth off the line of scrimmage and he's having his vision to the (receivers) and he's lending body position to the routes that are developing behind him. He is a fitting dude. He fits exactly where we need him to fit. He's picking up his pass rush, too, and that tickles me. He's playing hard and playing physical and making some moves and getting home."
Zombo has been tough and smart. It was a little-noticed play, but on San Francisco's first drive, 49ers quarterback Troy Smith scrambled to his right, then changed course and ran to the left behind a couple of blockers. It had the makings of a big play but the only defender who stayed home, Zombo, threw a shoulder into the lead blocker, which forced Smith to cut inside and right into the pursuit.
"Not just that but he does that all the time," Greene said. "He comes in and takes out a couple blockers. As we can take two with an outside backer, we're freeing one of the inside backers to scrape and be a free hitter. That's a constant effort by Zombo."
And now, Zombo is heading home. He said a couple hundred friends and family members will converge on Ford Field. Fortunately for Zombo, he hasn't had to open his wallet to get all of those tickets.
"It's not hard to get Detroit tickets," Zombo joked.
Zombo is playing so well and with so much confidence that he unveiled his own sack celebration, an ode to the "mark of Zorro" that got Clay Matthews' seal of approval. He would love to punctuate his homecoming by dropping Lions quarterback Drew Stanton on Sunday.
"If I make a play, it might sound like we're at Lambeau. I'm definitely excited," he said.
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