Key to success

Packers' linebackers have to make more big plays in 2006

Teams that are successful in the NFL usually have at least one linebacker that is considered a playmaker. Some teams have more than one. Those teams are usually very successful. Ted Thompson might have considered that equation as he drafted A.J. Hawk and Abdul Hodge in this year's draft. Both Hawk and Hodge were tackling machines in college, with Hawk showing a propensity to make big plays. Big plays have rarely been seen by linebackers recently in Green Bay.

Nick Barnett has been the exception to that, but even he could improve. Barnett has put up consistent big tackling numbers over his three-year career, and he has five interceptions over that time and five fumble recoveries. Barnett also has six sacks in that period, one forced fumble and one defensive touchdown. The numbers aren't bad for Barnett, but he didn't get much help from his fellow linebackers in Green Bay. Plus, some people say that Barnett is a natural outside linebacker and playing him inside inhibits his production.

Hawk is a playmaker. Two big games his senior year at Ohio State stand out. Against eventual national champion Texas and elusive Vince Young, Hawk had a monster game with 12 tackles (3 for a loss), one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, two sacks and one interception. Then against a very talented Notre Dame team in the Fiesta Bowl, Hawk again had 12 tackles and two sacks. Hawk averaged 123 tackles a year his last three years in Columbus and also had 15 career sacks and 7 career interceptions. The Packers hope that production will transfer to the NFL.

Hodge did not have a career interception at Iowa, but he was always around the ball. Hodge averaged an incredible 138 tackles a year his last three years as a Hawkeye. Hodge also had seven career sacks. Hodge is a natural inside linebacker and his arrival might move Barnett to the outside.

Hawk, Hodge and Barnett. That could be a pretty good trio. The Packers have seen this before. Every one of Vince Lombardi's five championship teams in Green Bay had a great trio of linebackers. The first two championship teams in 1961 and 1962 had Bill Forrester, Ray Nitschke and Dan Currie. All were All-Pro selections multiple times in their career, with Nitschke becoming a member of the NFL Hall of Fame after his great career. The 1965, 1966 and 1967 championship teams had Lee Roy Caffey, Nitschke and Dave Robinson. Again, all were All-Pro players.

If you look back at the big games in the Lombardi era, you will usually find a huge play by one of the linebackers that altered the outcome of the game. Nitschke was MVP of the 1962 championship game. Robinson's pressure on quarterback Don Meredith in the 1966 championship game caused an interception to secure a victory for the Pack as they made a valiant goal line stand in Dallas. Caffey was one of the unsung heroes in the Ice Bowl as he was all over the field making big play after big play.

The 1996 championship team didn't have any All-Pros at linebacker, but the linebackers made plays. Brian Williams was always around the football. George Koonce had three interceptions, including one for a touchdown. But it was Wayne Simmons that gave the Packer linebacker crew their personality. Simmons was nasty and mean and he threw tight ends around like rag dolls. Just ask Brent Jones of the 49ers. Simmons was the one who started the Packers on their march to a championship in the playoff game against the 49ers in San Francisco after the 1995 season. Simmons forced a fumble early in that game that was returned for a TD by CB Craig Newsome. The Packers never looked back until they hoisted the Lombardi trophy a year later.

Take a look at the NFL in general. In the NFC North, the play of Brian Urlacher has helped the Bears move up to the top of the division. Look at recent championship teams. Linebackers have played a major part in their success - Joey Porter (Pittsburgh), Tedy Bruschi (New England), Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay), Ray Lewis (Baltimore). The list goes on and on.

If the 2006 season and beyond will be successful in Green Bay, the Packers will need the linebacker corp to step up and produce. Based on the track records of Hawk and Hodge in college, plus Barnett's in Green Bay, there is a real chance that this group will be the catalyst for a run at glory again. Linebackers can't do it alone. All three phases of a football team have to perform - offense, defense and special teams. But if the rest of the team can do its part, my guess is that this trio will be a major strength of the squad. And based on their youth, that run of success will last a long time.

Bob Fox is a freelance writer from the Tampa, Fla., area. E-mail him at greenbaybob@hotmail.com.


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