Linebackers continue to improve

Hawk, Barnett, Poppinga wreak havoc on Vikings' offense

A.J. Hawk picked up where San Francisco 49ers linebacker Brandon Moore left off Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Last Sunday, Moore helped the 49ers to a 9-3 victory over the Vikings with a career-high 14 tackles, three quarterback pressures and 2.5 sacks.

Moore was all over the field, wreaking havoc on Minnesota's beleagured offense. For his effort, he was named NFC Defensive player of the week.

Hawk may be up for that kind of recognition this week. Coming off a season-low four tackle performance a week ago at Buffalo, Hawk had perhaps his best game of the season Sunday against the Vikings. He led the Packers with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two hits on quarterback Brad Johnson, and a forced fumble in the Packers' 23-17 victory over the Vikings in the Metrodome. The rookie, along with middle linebacker Nick Barnett and strong-side linebacker Brady Poppinga, put constant pressure on Johnson and contributed to the team's four sacks.

Johnson passed for 257 yards, but the Vikings only converted on 6 of 15 (40 percent) third downs and were forced to punt five straight times in the second half.

"Our coaches made some great calls today to get some pressure on them," said the always humble Hawk.

"We're trying to limit the points that we give up. I think when we needed to, we stopped them. We had guys come up with some huge plays. Brady (Poppinga) with that turnover early was huge, and Pat (Dendy) getting that interception was huge. Those are game-changers, so when stuff like that happens, it helps our defense a lot," Hawk said.

A blitzing Poppinga forced Johnson to fumble the ball away in the first quarter. Defensive tackle Corey Williams recovered on Minnesota's 22, and the Packers scored a touchdown on Brett Favre's five-yard pass to Noah Herron for a 10-0 lead.

"Good players find a way to be in the right place at the right time," said Favre. "I actually rode with Brady (Poppinga) in the backseat of the bus this morning. All he was saying was, ‘I got to find a way to calm down, man. I got to find a way to calm down. I haven't slept in a month,' and if anybody has ever been around Brady then you know what I am talking about. To say he is high-strung is an understatement. Guys like that bring energy to the team. A.J. Hawk has been a great pick for us. Nick Barnett has been a lock for us and is still continuing to get better. I think the presence of these other guys have made him better."

In the past month, the coaching staff has found different ways to get the most out of Hawk, the fifth overall pick of this year's NFL draft. The defense has often used a 3-3 defense formation during passing downs. With Poppinga, who played defensive end at BYU, as a down lineman, Hawk and Barnett are allowed to roam the field and make plays.

Since the beginning of the season and now, it is safe to say that the Packers' linebackers have gotten much more comfortable in their roles. That kind of chemistry has been very evident on the field.

"We are just starting to get comfortable attacking," Barnett said. "Sending guys and knowing where we need to fit on those blitzes and those plays. There were a couple of times when I went and it wasn't even a blitz. It was just feeling comfortable and knowing where I need to fit."

Barnett finished with the game with five tackles an combined with Hawk on bringing down Johnson in the fourth quarter. Poppinga finished with three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

While the linebackers are improving, they also realize that there is a lot to learn.

"When you have three guys that can run to the ball, it helps," Barnett said. "If I make a mistake, A.J. Hawk will cover it up, or if A.J. Hawk over runs it, I'm up under him. The same goes with Brady Poppinga as well. We are going to make mistakes and that's part of playing football. Teams scheme new plays against us. We just need to have guys running to the ball to cover up for us."

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