Fortunately, the Packers have a trump card at the position in outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.
Aside from Pro Bowler Clay Matthews, the Packers' outside linebackers were surrounded in the same veil of uncertainty entering last season. Brad Jones had a successful seven-game stint as a starter in 2009 but, for the second consecutive year, had missed most of training camp with an injury. Brady Poppinga hadn't shown much in Dom Capers' scheme. And after Ted Thompson chose not to add an outside linebacker in the draft, Frank Zombo made the team as an undrafted free agent. Then, during the season, Jones and Poppinga were lost to season-ending injuries, requiring the midseason addition of Erik Walden, a player who didn't have a single sack in 28 career games.
Through that uncertainty, Greene cajoled his troops to produce. Zombo (four), Walden (three) and Poppinga (one) put together a respectable eight sacks. In all, four players started opposite Matthews — including Robert Francois, who was released by the Packers three times last season. Despite that revolving door, the Packers finished second in the league in points allowed, first in opponent passer rating and second in sacks.
So, while Zombo is down, Greene's not out — nor is the position group. After all, Greene — the NFL's career leader in sacks among linebackers — knows how to get the job done.
"Nobody gave me a coaching book and said, ‘You need to coach this way,'" Greene said this week. "I think you get what you demand. I think you get what you emphasize. If you emphasize the things that are important to you as a coach, you're probably going to get that from your players.
"A lot of things that were important to me — the physical nature — it was important to me to be a physical player, and I think that's carrying into my kids. It was important for me to be a student of the game and watch a lot of film and know my presnap reads and how it could help me be a better player and make plays. That's passing onto my kids. We spend so much together, how can it not? The good thing is is that I've been able to do some things at this position that they will kind of listen and not come in with ‘I know it all' attitudes. I don't have any of those kids. They listen and they learn the fundamentals and techniques that I'm teaching. They worked for me, I figured they ought to work for them. It's as simple as that. I'm just teaching what worked for me, and it works for them."
Without Zombo, Walden is the clear front-runner to start with Matthews. Walden had been released four times in two-plus seasons before latching on with Green Bay on Oct. 27. From those humble roots came the NFC's defensive player of the week in the must-win season finale against Chicago, when Walden recorded a stunning three sacks, five quarterback hits and 16 tackles. He added another sack in the playoffs before missing the Super Bowl with a sprained ankle.
Walden played poorly last week against Arizona, prompting the usually verbose Greene to simply say: "I think he needs to get better."
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"Vision," Greene said when asked about the most challenging part of the end-to-linebacker transition. "You're talking about bringing a guy that's been down in a three-point stance, looking straight ahead at one thing, keying one thing. Now, you're putting him in a two-point stance that he's never been in before and telling him he's got to see the entire field and know where everybody aligns — the tight ends, the receivers, the backs — and know what that means to your coverage responsibility and where you need to get. It's a monumental deal, taking a guy that's just doing this (two-point stance) and telling him to stand up and see everything. The vision's the hardest thing. To see everything and to apply that to the defense we're running, that just takes time. You've got to see it more and more and more and more to get better."
They'll get that time on Friday and, especially, the preseason finale against Kansas City next Thursday, when the front-line players will play minimally, if at all.
Elmore, with 21.5 sacks during his final two seasons at Arizona, has been a major disappointment and has fallen behind the powerful So'oto (6-3, 263) and the cat-quick Lattimore (6-2, 230). With Zombo out, chances are one of those rookies will crack the final roster. While So'oto seems a better fit for Greene's get-physical mantra, it's Lattimore who is working with the No. 1s on three of the four core special teams.
"If you don't have proper technique and fundamentals, you're going to get your ass kicked," Greene said, dismissing Lattimore's lack of heft. "Now, my playing weight was 242, 245. I liked to think when I look back on my career that I kicked a lot of ass, mainly on big people. They didn't really block me a whole hell of a lot with running backs and tight ends. They blocked me with big people, but I had good fundamentals and technique with my physicality. That's always a pretty good recipe for success. So'oto, like all of my kids, I'm always talking about fundamentals and technique. ‘Lower your pad level. Get your hands inside. Lower your strike point.'"
With Greene's track record, the Packers will get production, regadless of who starts with Matthews. And when Zombo returns, Greene is "110 percent certain that he'll provide an impact on defense.
Incredibly, Greene said Zombo "did not have a single error" despite playing 30 snaps with the injury.
"Never did," Greene said with obvious admiration when asked if he'd ever played with such a serious injury. "I played with some broken digits but that can't really hold a candle to playing with a broken shoulder blade."
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.