Linebackers have most to learn

Don't be surprised if you see a Green Bay Packers' linebacker camped out under a shade tree this summer with his head buried in the defensive playbook. Within Jim Bates' new scheme, the linebackers have perhaps the biggest learning curve of all the positions on defense.

Ask the cerebral Na'il Diggs, a sixth-year pro and starter since his rookie season in 2000:

"I get out there sometimes and I'm spinning, and I usually can pick things up pretty fast," Diggs said. "Sometimes I get out there and I'm a little overwhelmed. I'll admit that, but I know it won't always be that way. Once I see it, and once I experience it and I get coached up on it, I probably won't mess up."

Through the June minicamp, which ended a few weeks ago, the Packers have installed about 80% to 85% of their defense. Bates will review what the Packers have learned thus far at the start of training camp in late July, then begin installing the rest of the defensive scheme.

The linebackers face the most challenging adjustment to the new scheme because they often will switch roles. For example, the strong-side (Sam) linebacker might suddenly become the weak-side (Will) linebacker if the tight end goes in motion. The outside linebackers need to know each others responsibilities, plus responsibilities in the nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) passing defenses.

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett is just as excited about his new role.

"We're not restricted to one gap," Barnett explained. "We're able to play the play instead of just playing our responsibilities and hitting just one gap and staying there. We're able to move round and make plays, and that's the difference between this defense and last year's defense."

The Packers simply need to get more big plays out of their linebackers this season. In 2004, the starting trio of Diggs, Barnett and Hannibal Navies finished with a total of 4.5 sacks and one interception. In Bates' scheme, the linebackers are expected to make plays - period.

"Our guys have been working real hard," said linebackers coach Mark Duffner. "I've been impressed with their study, with their focus on what we're doing. Once they get their responsibilities down, it's a linebacker friendly defense. Some of it is new scheme and new terminology and they've had to adjust to learn that. I feel like they're coming along. They are still not where they need to be, but they're learning at a good pace right now."

Green Bay signed free agent Raynoch Thompson in April. He has been practicing in Diggs' old spot at Will linebacker while Diggs has been moved to the strongside. Both outside linebackers will trade places during games. Barnett has remained in the middle during the off-season minicamps and "opportunity" sessions.

The linebackers were often confused in scrimmages against the Packers offense during the June minicamp, but the offense wasn't working on anything new. It had the advantage of running plays that it used over the past half-dozen seasons.

"It's good that they're running that stuff because it gives us exposure and it's keeping our brains steadily thinking, which is good," Diggs said. "We're not getting lulled to sleep, thinking we know it all, and getting cocky and arrogant, then we go out there and get burned."

Bates admitted during the June minicamp that linebacker is "probably the hardest position to play within the scheme."

"They're only 4 1/2 yards off the line of scrimmage and we play a lot of matchup, and that takes longer than any other position to come to the front," Bates explained.

Those linebackers who catch on the quickest to the responsibilities probably will have the best chance of starting. Bates said he is not set on any starters at this point, though, Diggs, Barnett and Thompson appear to be the front-runners.

Coach (Mark) Duffner, myself and the defensive staff are looking for steady improvement," Bates said. "We've got to have the patience. We've got to open it up for the competition, and we've got to find out who can play this scheme."


Note: Todd Korth is managing editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at packrepted@aol.com.


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