Hawk, Bush Take Center Stage on Monday

The Packers' linebacker and the Saints' big-play running back haven't quite lived up to their 2006 draft billing. How Hawk matches up against Bush will be a big key on Monday night.

Reggie Bush and A.J. Hawk were in the spotlight during their senior seasons in college and the months, weeks and days leading to the 2006 draft.

On Monday night, they'll be in the spotlight again when Bush's New Orleans Saints host Hawk's Green Bay Packers in a key battle between 5-5 teams fighting for their playoff lives.

Bush, the consensus best player in the draft and the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, was passed over by Houston and fell into the laps of the Saints with the No. 2 overall pick. Hawk, the consensus best linebacker in the draft, was deemed the surest thing of the draft and was taken at No. 5 by the Packers instead of flashy tight end Vernon Davis.

Fast forward 2 1/2 years, and neither Bush nor Hawk have lived up the lofty expectations.

Not that that phrase should be construed as them being first-round flops, like fellow top-10 picks Davis, Michael Huff and Matt Leinart.

Bush is an all-or-nothing sensation. He's an electrifying open-field talent and perhaps the NFL's most dangerous punt returner and receiving threat out of the backfield. But as a running back, his 1,440 career rushing yards aren't a lot more than Carolina's DeAngelo Williams (the 27th pick in the 2006 draft) is on pace to attain this season. Bush's career average of 3.6 yards per rush isn't up to NFL standards.

Still, for the sleepless nights he gives opposing defensive coordinators every week, the Saints are happy Bush is on their side.

"He was probably having his best year to date prior to his knee injury (which sidelined him the previous three games)," Saints coach Sean Payton said this week. "We're definitely happy with the player we drafted, understanding that each week we have to be mindful of what we think his role is. He provides someone that gives us the explosive play ability in the running game as well as the passing game and the return game."

Bush, listed as questionable on the injury report, was a limited participant at Saturday's practice, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy expects Bush to be in the lineup on Monday.

"He's a dynamic player," McCarthy said. "He has the ability to score from anywhere on the field, whether it's a punt return or a screen, or how they tend to get him the ball on the perimeter. It looks like he's running the ball between the tackles better than I recall in his rookie season when he played up here. He's a dynamic player."

What the Packers no doubt are sweating is Bush's ability to catch balls out of the backfield. While Green Bay feels confident its cornerbacks will hold up against the Drew Brees-led aerial assault, how the defense will handle Bush is the mystery and perhaps the key to the game.

Saints RB Reggie Bush
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Brandon Chillar, the Packers' best linebacker against the pass, likely will be tied up with Jeremy Shockey. So, it will be up to Hawk and the safeties to keep an eye on Bush, who has 202 career receptions.

"His rookie season, he ended up with, shoot, over 75, 80 catches (88, actually)," Payton said. "He played a factor for us not only offensively but in the return game with the big return to beat Tampa Bay (in Week 5 in 2006). That first year, he really was a big part of us getting to the NFC championship game."

Bush missed four games last season, when he caught 73 passes for merely 5.7 yards per reception. This season, he was on pace to catch 96 passes before needing knee surgery.

"He's just a very dynamic player," Hawk said. "He adds so much to their offense. They do a good job of getting him open, getting him in space, getting him the ball in many different ways, whether it be reverses or punts or out in the flat or just playing running back. He can do a bunch of different things. You have to be aware of where he's at."

Like Bush, Hawk hasn't exactly performed like a top-five pick. Unlike the all-or-nothing Bush, Hawk has been a steady but rarely splashy performer. He led the defense in tackles as a rookie, and he almost certainly will this season with middle linebacker Nick Barnett out for the season.

Last week against Chicago, Hawk was in on 12 tackles in his first start in Barnett's place, and he seemed to be a steadying influence for a run defense that had been slashed and gashed through most of the first nine games of the season.

"He's very instinctive, he's very physical," Payton said of Hawk. "He's a guy we're certainly very familiar with, being that we were right at the top of the draft that same year to be in a position to select him. He obviously loves playing football. You saw a guy that looked very comfortable at the Mike position and did a good job of handling their defense. He's a good tackler and runs well side-to-side. We have a ton of respect for him."

Hawk said facing the Saints' top-ranked offense will be a "huge challenge," especially because Payton and Brees are so good at getting their playmakers — especially Bush — the ball with space to make things happen.

"We know they're going to make a couple of plays," Hawk said. "Hopefully, we can make a couple more than them."

Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com.

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