Training camp preview: Linebackers

Packers add to defense with free-agent Brandon Chillar and more aggressive schemes.

The more things stay the same, the more things might change.

For a third consecutive season, Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga could form the Green Bay Packers' starting trio of linebackers.

Now, for the change: Throw in free-agent acquisition Brandon Chillar, and the Packers' 'backers could be attacking opposing offenses with a new dose of aggressiveness.

Chillar vs. Poppinga to be the starting strong-side linebacker figures to be the hottest battle during training camp, which starts on Monday. Poppinga is one of the Packers' most aggressive defenders, and is a stalwart against the run. His weakness is in pass coverage — though that's an area he improved on last season — so the Packers made a rare free-agent splash by signing Chillar away from the St. Louis Rams.

Far from complaining about having to prove himself after starting 15 of 16 regular-season games last season (the Packers opened one game with five defensive backs), Poppinga has welcomed the challenge and has gone so far as to help Chillar pick up the system.

"Competition is an innate part of life. You've got to compete to married. You've got to compete to have a girlfriend," Poppinga told's Adam Caplan on his Sirius NFL radio program last week.

"The fact that you've got to complete, to me, is part of life. I compete all the time. The main competitor I face is the guy in the mirror. Having Brandon there, obviously, I understand that if I slip up — which is a big if — you know what, they feel like they have somebody there who has starting experience who hopefully can (pick) up where I slipped up. The reality is, they want me to be the starting linebacker. Obviously, I'm going to go out and make plays and help this defense be a dominant, top-of-the-league defense."

In part because of the talent at linebacker, which includes entrenched starters Nick Barnett in the middle and A.J. Hawk on the weak side, the Packers have hinted at a more aggressive scheme. Throughout organized team activities and minicamp, the Packers' defense attacked the quarterback.

Whether that will be a big part of the defensive game plan this season or whether that was simply getting Aaron Rodgers and the rookie quarterbacks ready for what they're likely to face is unknown. Barnett, however, tipped the defense's hand with the smile he flashed when asked about the attacking style.

"We have a great group of linebackers," Barnett said during minicamp. "So much depth, so much talent and (so much) hunger in this crew. I can't wait to see what we will do. You only see so much in minicamp. When training camp comes, we'll put the pads on and really start shooting bullets. That's what we're looking forward to."

Chillar's versatility is one reason for the cranked-up aggressiveness. His ability to cover can help fill the voids left by a blitzing linebacker or keep the Packers in their base defense more often, so perhaps defensive coordinator Bob Sanders will feel inclined to turn Barnett and, especially, loose.

"He's a guy that give us many different options in how we can attack an offense," said Poppinga, who could become a situational pass-rusher if he loses his job to Chillar. "Having him on our team has enhanced our team and enhanced our linebacking corps, and I think it has enhanced our coach that we can go out and attack and offense."

Bill Huber writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at

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