From one perspective, A.J. Hawk has some big shoes to fill.
From another perspective, there's nowhere to go but up.
It appears Hawk is the choice to replace the injured Nick Barnett at middle linebacker. Barnett, who will miss the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, was a Pro Bowl alternate last season and the team's leader in tackles this season.
But the Packers' run defense ranks 28th in the NFL and was gutted for a combined 398 yards against Minnesota and Tennessee the last two weeks. So, for as good as Barnett has been in his five-plus seasons as the starting middle linebacker, can the run defense really be much worse with Hawk replacing Barnett and, presumably, Brandon Chillar replacing Hawk?
"When it comes down to it, it's all just still football," Hawk said of the position change. "It's just seeing the game from a little different perspective from the middle of the field. You're kind of running inside-out on all the plays instead of you're chasing things from the back side with the Will (weak-side linebacker) position a lot. It just takes a little bit of work to keep that view, that different perspective of the game and feel how they're trying to attack you."
Whether they were having subpar seasons or were impacted by injuries and inconsistent play by the defensive tackles, the linebackers — supposedly the strength of the team — haven't performed to their ability.
Barnett was on pace to record 125 tackles, far below the 165 he tallied last year. Hawk is on pace for 98 tackles, well below his 129 of last season and 155 as a rookie. More importantly, though, neither have been involved in a turnover play.
So, perhaps the shakeup will be just what this ineffective defense needs.
"I'm excited to be learning something new," Hawk said. "Obviously, I've known what the Mike (middle linebacker) has done since I've been playing weak side. We need to know all three positions, but now actually seeing it from my point of view, it's good to see and I think it helps me understand the whole defense even more."
Hawk will be on the same field as a player he's watched for years: the Bears' standout middle linebacker, Brian Urlacher. Urlacher hadn't heard about Barnett's injury until taking part in a conference call on Wednesday.
"Oh, that stinks, man. He's a good player," Urlacher said.
"That's a tough position," he continued, "because you've got to have a guy calling the defenses. He's been there for about six, seven years now, and they've probably grown accustomed to him calling the huddle. So, it's going to be a little bit different getting a new guy in there making the calls, but next man up has to go. That's just the way it works. It's a tough position to just kind of throw somebody in there.
Hawk hasn't played middle linebacker since high school, though the linebackers have moved around during organized team activities and minicamps.
"There's definitely differences, but it isn't like they haven't been trained there before," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Once again, it's A, getting the reps at the position (and) B, getting the reps in a specific game plan against your opponent. I'm very confident with a week's work that we'll be fine."
Hawk replaced Barnett as the signal-caller on defense last week and doesn't anticipate there being any problems. After all, he said, it's not too difficult to listen to the coach and repeat what he says. Beyond that, Hawk said replacing Barnett's intensity and fire will be a challenge.
"I think it's a big challenge but it's also a big opportunity," Hawk said. "I'm going to try to relish that and instill a little bit of what Nick has done around here and how he's set the tone."
The other top candidate to replace Barnett on Sunday is backup middle linebacker Desmond Bishop. Bishop, who spent part of training camp learning the outside positions, said run-pass responsibilities are the big difference between playing the middle and playing the outside.
"At the Will, you need to be a little more in tune with the pass," Bishop said. "Sometimes, you've got to read the run, and it it's not a run, you have to cover the tight end. At the Mike, if it's a pass, most of the times you have the running back, so you've got time to sort it out and get out on the coverage."
Bishop replaced Barnett last week against Minnesota and acquitted himself well except for his first and last snaps. Bishop can't help but think about those plays — when he whiffed on Chester Taylor's long touchdown reception and failed to get in the hole on Adrian Peterson's winning touchdown run.
"You can't think like that, but then again, it's in the back of my mind," Bishop said. "Maybe if those two plays would have went the way I wanted to, then maybe they might have had a little more confidence in me. But you can't go back. I can only look forward."
Looking forward to Sunday, Hawk knows he and his teammates will be challenged by the Bears' rushing attack. Matt Forte ranks eighth in the NFL and second among rookies with 713 rushing yards and is third among rookies with a team-high 37 receptions. With the changes at linebacker and the Packers' dreadful play against the run, Hawk knows the Bears are going to run early and often.
"We expect it," Hawk said. "Once you've shown something on film that you haven't done real well, I think a team should come in and try to test that and see if you've cleaned it up and you can stop it."
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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