Game day 'iso' on A.J. Hawk

Linebacker leads Packers in tackles, silences criticism of slow start

When the Green Bay Packers selected linebacker A.J. Hawk with the fifth pick in the 2006 draft, some forecasted greatness for the former Ohio State Buckeye.

Hawk had a real good rookie campaign, leading the team in tackles, making some wonder if he was ready to become a Pro Bowler this season. Three games into 2007, nobody would claim Hawk is playing at a Pro Bowl level.

In fact, some whispered Hawk was playing below expectations as the Packers prepared to play San Diego on Sunday. This comes with the territory of being a high pick.

The Chargers, however, gave Hawk the proving ground to show he is well on his way to stardom. He had the assignment, at times Sunday, to cover Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates and NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. Make one play on these guys and you're the toast of Packers Nation.

After it was all said and done, Hawk didn't make a standout play, but he didn't have anything to hang his ahead about, leading the team in tackles with 11.

Gates beat him a few times on pass plays, but show me a linebacker who can cover him. The key is when your player catches a pass, you stop his forward progress immediately, and Hawk does that. He's the most sure tackler on Green Bay's defense.

Against Tomlinson, who gained 62 rushing yards on 22 carries, Hawk held his own. One play, Hawk skated around two blockers and dumped Tomlinson in his tracks. He also threw aside bruising fullback Lorenzo Neal on a block and stopped Tomlinson.

If you focus on Hawk for a game, you realize he has a lot on his platter. He covers tight ends and running backs, he plays zone on passing downs and sometimes has to cover wide receivers. He also blitzes and blows up running plays where he doesn't make the tackle, but allows a teammate to bring down the back.

Hawk also never leaves the field.

Yes, he gets beat, but any defender who has ever played has gotten beat.

After Sunday's win, Hawk said everything went OK.

"Obviously, they're both great players," Hawk said. "Both those guys make plays all over the field."

Hawk's job is to fill gaps on running plays, which means making plays isn't all up to him. The defensive line must do its job first to free Hawk up.

Look at the great linebackers in recent memory – Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks, for example. Both had outstanding defensive lines, which were able to keep the offensive linemen off them. Brooks had Warren Sapp in his prime in front of him, while Lewis had Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams. Currently, Brian Urlacher has Tommie Harris. These linebackers were able to run free to make plays because the defensive tackles bottled up the middle.

That's what the Packers want to happen with their front seven. They want the likes of Ryan Pickett and Corey Williams to jam the middle, allowing Hawk to roam free. "When the defensive line makes penetration, it makes our job that much easier," Hawk said.

Nobody will confuse any Packers defensive tackle with Sapp, Siragusa or Harris. And Hawk won't be confused with Brooks, Lewis or Urlacher, yet, either.

But anybody throwing in the towel on Hawk after three games is making a mistake. Hawk is going to make more plays as the season moves on, like he did on Sunday.

If Packers fans are complaining about one of their linebackers after an 11-tackle effort, they're probably the type who would complain about Tiger Woods winning a tournament by only three shots and not five.

Sometimes Hawk can't make the big play because he isn't the only playmaker at linebacker. Nick Barnett also can make impact plays – evidenced by his interception late in the game.

Barnett made the huge defensive play Sunday, but who's to say Hawk won't be the guy the next time? Hawk is going to make plenty of plays for the Packers for many years to come. There's no doubt about it.

Sometimes, fans and media want everything to happen yesterday instead of exercising patience. Hawk is about as stable a player the defense has and his development over the next few seasons will be something to watch.

Hawk was asked about the defense's performance late in the game, staving off a Chargers rally, and he said, "When it came down to it, we had to make plays and we did."

There's nothing bad about that, and with many years ahead of Hawk, his teammates will be talking about his big plays time and time again. Sunday wasn't his time, but he'll have those times where we call him a Pro Bowler in the making.

Trust me.

Doug Ritchay is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at dritchay@sbcglobal.net.


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