When Brady Poppinga talks, you listen. You can't help it, because you never know what the cerebral, intense and perhaps slightly crazy Poppinga is going to say.
Take Tuesday afternoon, for instance, when we learned the devout Mormon — who interrupted his career at BYU to spend two years on a mission to Uruguay — is thrilled with the new defensive scheme but might need to call an exorcist.
"There's a lot of factors going on," Poppinga, who's entering his fifth NFL season, said in calling this his best training camp. "One, this defense is a great fit for me, and two, it's just a philosophy and approach that's something I'm all about. It's easy to do it because it's just who I am. It's the most natural camp. Naturally, it just flows, whereas previously — the defense was fine and we had success and went to the NFC championship as a top-10 defense — but it really took a huge compromise for me to be able to fit.
"There was a lot of battling my demons whereas those demons are actually good."
It's quite the role reversal for Poppinga, who entered training camp as the backup to Aaron Kampman at left outside linebacker. Considering Kampman leaves the field about as often as a hermit leaves his house, Poppinga seemed destined to be a highly paid special-teams player — or trade bait.
But when the players expected to battle to be the starting right outside linebacker — first-round pick Clay Matthews III and Jeremy Thompson — were injured for a significant period, Poppinga became the right outside linebacker by default. And like a freeloading relative who takes up residency in your basement and doesn't change the empty roll of toilet paper, Poppinga wasn't going to budge.
"You know what? We have a Poppinga. When we have a Poppinga, we're good to go. We are absolutely good to go," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said recently when Matthews, Thompson and seventh-round pick Brad Jones were out.
There were plenty of reasons for "a Poppinga" to sulk a few weeks ago. Not only was he behind Kampman on the depth chart, but he wasn't being allowed to compete for the position opposite Kampman — a battle pitting two players with nothing resembling an honest-to-goodness NFL resumé.
But Poppinga isn't like most players. He wasn't ticked off about the signing of Brandon Chillar last offseason — even though Chillar was there to take his playing time — and he was genuinely happy when the team drafted Matthews because of the intensity he saw Matthews playing with when USC was getting manhandled at Oregon State last year.
Greene loves that attitude, and he loves the attitude Poppinga takes on the field. Through injuries and two-a-day practices, Poppinga has been one of the steady forces on defense. He pours his heart and soul into every snap, just like Greene did during his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
"He's a physical kid," Greene said. "To be an outside 'backer in this 3-4, you've got to be a physical (expletive) kid. That's what he is. He's a smart kid. He fits exactly into the scheme where he needs to fit. He's dropping exactly where he needs to drop. He rarely has a mental error. He's a good, dadgum good kid (and) all-around outside backer, absolutely."
That Poppinga seems to have adapted so well is surprising and totally expected, all at once. As Greene likes to say, playing outside linebacker requires being able to stop the run, rush the passer and cover receivers. Poppinga, who started 39 games the previous three seasons, had a track record as a physical run-stopper, but his three sacks in four professional seasons suggested he wasn't a good pass rusher and his mediocre coverage skills led to the signing of Chillar.
However, pairing the intense Poppinga with the intense Greene has been a match made in heaven. With this defense requiring more zone coverage and less man-to-man, Poppinga has been at least adequate in that phase of the game. He was exactly where he needed to be when he caught the deflection on a pass broken up by Nick Collins on Saturday against Buffalo. And Greene and defensive coordinator Dom Capers value physicality and brute force more than finesse and moves from a pass rusher as a way to collapse the pocket around the quarterback. So, that Poppinga doesn't have a vast repertoire of pass-rushing moves isn't a problem, since Poppinga is perfectly content to act as a human cannonball in planting his helmet between the numbers of an offensive lineman's jersey.
"You see him, don't you? You've been in here watching him, right?" Greene replied when asked whether Poppinga is good enough in all three facets of his position to be a quality starter.
"That's indicative of how training camp goes and the preseason games go," Capers said. "You try to encourage guys that everybody's going to get an opportunity, and you've got to take advantage of your opportunities. The opportunity presented itself and Brady's jumped up and taken advantage of it. He's done a nice job in practice and he's carried over into the games."
Time will tell whether heart and attitude and passion are good enough. Matthews is due back from his hamstring injury next week, and if he can stay healthy, he might challenge Poppinga for the starting job at some point during the season.
That's for the future, though. On this afternoon, the intense, passionate and maybe slightly crazy Greene is happy as you-know-what to have the intense, passionate and maybe slightly crazy Poppinga in his huddle.
"You know what? He's a Poppinga," Greene said in updating the fun phrase from a couple weeks ago. "He's the Poppinga. That says it all. He's good. He's squared away mentally. He's focused and he's playing physical. He's going to make some things happen. He's already made some things happen. You've seen it. Good things happen to football players who are around the ball constantly."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.