The thinking is that when a starter goes down, the backup takes his spot and it's business as usual. No excuses. No drop-off. Play on.
While that's a nice thought, it's rarely the case.
Then there's right outside linebacker Erik Walden. He was not the next man up. Or even the next man after that. Nope, signed off the street on Oct. 27 after the Miami Dolphins cut him three games into the season, Walden was the fourth player to man that spot behind opening day starter Brad Jones, veteran Brady Poppinga and rookie free agent Frank Zombo. If actor Vince Vaughn were putting a "Swingers" spin on it, Walden would be, "the guy, behind the guy, behind the guy … behind the guy."
The former defensive end out of Middle Tennessee State got his first taste of action just three days after signing with Green Bay as a situational pass rusher against the New York Jets. He'd see limited action from scrimmage during each of the next four games at linebacker along with special teams duty. Then in Detroit, Zombo went down with a knee injury and Walden saw his most extensive time to date with 17 plays.
He started the following week against New England and made up for lost time with a team-leading nine stops in the first NFL start of his career. He'd play, but not start, the following week against the New York Giants due to a quadriceps injury. Robert Francois would be the fifth player to start in that spot. But in a win-or-go-home season-finale against the Bears, Walden was back in the starting lineup and exploded with 16 tackles, 2.5 sacks of Jay Cutler, five quarterback hits and three tackles for losses.
Cliché collided with reality when it was needed the most. The result was a 10-3 win that put the Pack in the postseason and made Walden the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Hardly a one-hit wonder, the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Walden led the defense with eight tackles, a sack of Michael Vick and a forced fumble in Green Bay's NFC wild-card matchup with Philadelphia. He also brought the heat on a blitz with A.J. Hawk on the Eagles' two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter, forcing a key incompletion.
"You have to account for everyone on the defense, top to bottom," Walden said. "There is really no weak link. We take pride in it, we love what we do. We just want to be in the argument when they talk about top defenses like the Ravens and the Steelers. We feel like we should be at the top of that conversation."
Against the Falcons in the divisional playoff round, Walden played 51 snaps with four tackles, three quarterback hits and a pair of quarterback pressures. In the NFC title game, he was in Cutler's face again, with two hits on him along with three tackles before to leaving in the third quarter with an ankle injury.
Walden sat out of Green Bay's practice on Thursday at Highland Park High School after testing the ankle on Wednesday. He's hoping he can make his fifth consecutive start this season in Super Bowl XLV. If he's unable to go, Zombo could reclaim the spot opposite Clay Matthews.
"He was very sore, which is why we limited him today," coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's up the air with him right now. We'll see how he feels tomorrow. Even if he feels a lot better, he'll be limited. I'm going to hold him back and give him every chance to be ready for the game."
While the fascination and conversation with the Packers' defense has centered on Matthews, cornerback Charles Woodson and nose tackle B.J. Raji – justifiably so – Walden is the poster child for unexpected performances on a team that saw six opening day starters end the year on injured reserve. Three of those players were on defense – inside linebacker and last year's leading tackler, Nick Barnett, outside linebacker Jones and rookie safety Morgan Burnett. That's not including defensive end Johnny Jolly, who was suspended for the season.
A native of Dublin, Ga., Walden grew up rooting for the Packers and former running back Ahman Green, in part because his high school colors were green and gold. Now, after a journey that saw him drafted by Dallas in the sixth round of 2008, let go on the final cutdown, spend time in Kansas City and Miami, and be in the unemployment line just three-and-a-half months ago, he's come full circle with the Packers taking on the Steelers at Cowboys Stadium in the Super Bowl. And if he's healthy, Walden will be in that starting lineup.
"Erik Walden is our starting outside linebacker," McCarthy said. "He's not going to be replaced because of an injury. He's earned that through his production down the stretch here. He's going through a medical situation right now, and we'll give him every opportunity to get ready for the game."
With the attention that Matthews will draw, it could lead to some golden opportunities for Walden to get to plus-sized quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But he recognizes that it's a tall order to bring down a 6-foot-5, 241-pound signal-caller.
"He does a great job evading the pressure," Walden said. "Time to time, guys come loose and get to him, but if you're not able to get him on the ground or not able to sack him, he can throw the ball away. So, I think that's one of the keys of the game. If someone gets there, he has to hold onto him until the rest of the pack comes. It's going to be a show as far as getting to him and stopping the running game and trying to contain the receivers and tight ends. We got our hands full but we're definitely up for the challenge."
If the last month is any indication, it's a challenge Walden will be up for.
"All of the hype, it's good to get to the Super Bowl, but if you don't finish the deal, then it's like everybody forgot that we even made it. That's our main focus."
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.