In the Packers, there's nothing but the soothing touch of stability.
Of the 16 teams that played a 4-3 defense in 2010 and will again this season, six are projected to start new middle linebackers. Two of those will be rookies: third-round pick Mason Foster replaces Barrett Ruud in Tampa Bay and fourth-round selection Casey Matthew replaces Stewart Bradley in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the Packers get to lean on the leadership provided by A.J. Hawk as an inside linebacker in their 3-4 defense.
Regardless of the scheme, the linebackers in the middle have more on their plate than tackles, sacks and interceptions. The position demands a player who's on top of his game, mentally and physically.
"Hawk is a guy that gets us in great defenses," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said last week. "He's a guy that the defense trusts and they play with so much confidence when he's in front of the defense calling the plays. He's a great assignment guy. Still, at the end of every single year, he's always getting his interceptions and he's right up there in tackles when his play count has been up."
Hawk's presence in front of the huddle has been mentioned up and down the coaching staff since he took over that role for the injured Nick Barnett last season. Outside linebacker Brad Jones said Hawk is great at being a coach on the field and delivering quick bits of information about what to expect and what to look for even before defensive coordinator Dom Capers has made his call. At the line of scrimmage, Hawk brings a sense of calm to the chaotic chess match that takes place just before the snap.
"No matter what the situation is, you know what you're going to get," said Hawk's sidekick, Desmond Bishop. "He's consistent, never panics, does a good job of making the calls."
Added outside linebacker Frank Zombo, "A.J.'s just a great teammate. He isn't a ‘hoo-rah' kind of guy but when he talks, he just has a persona about him that you listen to him. He's a great leader. When he talks, people listen. We have a lot of confidence in him, and when he leads our huddle, I definitely feel comfortable."
By contrast, the Buccaneers and Eagles will have to sink or swim with rookies.
The move to the middle will mark a bit of a transition for Foster, who played only sparingly in the middle during a good college career at Washington, but who was privately earmarked for the "Mike" position as a contingency in the event that Ruud (who signed with Tennessee) went elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.
"The big thing is that you can't necessarily get caught up with making huge plays," Foster told The Sports Xchange. "You've just got to make plays, period. Be steady. You know, stay at home, take care of the detail stuff, do what you're supposed to do, and do it well. You can't try to do too much, you know? Just (do) your job. Be a kind of like a tackling machine and be proud of that."
Actually, Ruud made more "big plays" — five sacks, six interceptions, six forced fumbles and five recoveries in his four seasons as a starter — than most middle linebackers. Foster likely won't be as effective, but will be asked to turn and cover the deep center of the field at times, a prerequisite for any 4-3 middle linebacker in a Cover-2 scheme.
Nonetheless, neither Foster nor Matthews, who played middle linebacker at Oregon, are known for their flashiness. Both are regarded as smart, instinctive defenders and solid tacklers, guys who play by the book, but in a positive sense.
Said one veteran Eagles defender of Matthews: "He won't jump out at you, and he'll pretty much mostly play tackle to tackle, but he'll be at the bottom of a lot of piles."
Although drafted outside of the top 50 players, Foster and Matthews seem to be typical of the rationale that has become prevalent among 4-3 franchises anymore. In the past 10 drafts, only four "pure" 4-3 middle linebackers were chosen in the first round, the latest being Rolando McClain of Oakland in 2010. Not only are 4-3 clubs reluctant to invest high-round picks on middle linebackers, players who line up for just the first two snaps and then jog to the sideline in "sub" situations, but they're moving younger players into the position, as well.
Talk about cutting out the middle man.
With only a few exceptions, middle linebacker has become a run-stuffing specialist position, the antithesis of what it used to be when it was the glamour spot for a lot of defensive units. Of course, the evolution of the position doesn't matter much to Foster or Matthews.
"It's still a lot of responsibility, which I don't take lightly at all," Foster said. "There's a lot to learn, like get people (lined up) in the right place, calling all the changes for the defense, and a lot of pressure on you."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.