"Coach (Jim) Bates, the former defensive coordinator here, would always tell me, ‘It's like chopping a big tree. Just keep chopping, just keep chopping.' That's the same thing I'm doing," the colorful Brady Poppinga said last week. "As I go along, things come back. I start to remember. It's a whole different world playing on the edge than it is playing off the ball. So, it's a matter of just tinkering and remembering and then adjusting to what is necessary in order to be successful."
Poppinga tallied 20 sacks in his final three seasons at BYU. The Packers' fourth-round pick in 2005, Poppinga says his inner pass rusher has yet to be unleashed in Green Bay.
"The (defense) we implemented here in Green Bay required that I bridled my passions, so to speak," Poppinga said of the 4-3 run by Bates and his successor, Bob Sanders. "So, I really had to keep things in control, in check. I really couldn't let myself go all of the time, unless I was blitzing. This (the 3-4) caters to my personality a lot more."
That's what he said last year, of course, when he lost the starting job at right outside linebacker to Matthews after three games. Poppinga finished with only a late-season sack against Pittsburgh, which was his first since 2006 and only the fourth of his five-year career.
Clearly, those statistics suggest that he's unlikely to be the answer. But Poppinga said last year was a transition and he's grown much more confident and comfortable as an outside rusher.
"All last year was like that," he said of the transition. "If you think of evolution, between a dinosaur and a bird, there's that era where it's half-dinosaur but it still has feathers, you know? That's how I felt last year. I was like, ‘I'm sort of in the middle here.' So, this year I finally feel like I'm fully committed to the position. It just feels so much better right now, but every day is a step forward and I'm on track to being an elite, dominant pass rusher. That's where I'm going."
After being replaced by Matthews last season, Poppinga was moved to the left side to back up Aaron Kampman. But rookie seventh-rounder Brad Jones jumped ahead of Poppinga on the depth chart and went in as the starter for the rest of the season after Kampman suffered a season-ending knee injury in late November.
The departure of Kampman in free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars has given Poppinga a new lease on his football life. From the outset of the team's offseason workouts, defensive coordinator Dom Capers initiated a battle between Jones and Poppinga for the starting job.
While Capers said Jones is the likely starter, McCarthy indicated early in the OTAs that the race is too close to call as the Packers look to complement Matthews with an effective pass rusher on the opposite side.
"Brady Poppinga is having a heck of a spring, Brad is having a heck of a spring, and also Clay Matthews is coming off a Pro Bowl season," McCarthy said. "I feel very good about those three guys right now."
Matthews had 10 sacks last season but the Packers need a complement. Desperately. However, the situation might not be as dire as it seems. The Packers got nine from their left outside linebackers, with Jones and Kampman collecting four apiece to go with the one by Poppinga. It's vital for the Packers to get a consistent rush opposite of Matthews, who is certain to get a steady diet of double teams if the rush is lacking from his teammates.
"The team right now that does it really well is the Pittsburgh Steelers with Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison," Poppinga said. "They're able to really cause a lot of teams issues because you can't (just focus on one guy). Our scheme is set up that it's very difficult to always slide your line to their best rusher or whatever because we're coming from all different angles, so just the scheme itself presents the offense certain challenges that makes it difficult for them to focus in on one dude. But then to have another element where you have two guys that are causing havoc, it really puts the offense in a bind and it really makes this defense to the way it's meant to go."
Poppinga thinks — no, make that, he's certain — he's the man for the job.
"For me, my goal is to be an elite, dominating pass rusher in this scheme," Poppinga said. "So, it's a matter of allowing the pass rusher inside of me to re-emerge. You know, I had to kill him off for a couple years because what I did then was in such conflict with being a rusher. It's a matter of breaking those habits that I developed for four years of playing off the ball in a 43 defense and resurrecting like Lazarus from the dead the pass-rusher I came out of college as. That's really where my focus is at."
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