Shorthanded linebacking corps steps up
BALTIMORE—At the end, the Green Bay Packers were without three of their four starting linebackers.
Many times over the decades, that would have been the kiss of death.
On Sunday, it was business as usual as the hodgepodge of linebackers more than held its own in a 19-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Packers began the dreary afternoon without the great Clay Matthews (thumb) outside plus every-down hustler Brad Jones (hamstring) and old pro Rob Francois (torn Achilles) inside.
Then outside linebacker Nick Perry suffered an ankle injury late in the first half and was limited to about five snaps after that.
“It was a lot, but we didn’t get discouraged about that,” said Perry. “Ultimately, as younger guys, we all have to do a little bit more. We got guys coming up that need to help us out.
“Last week, going through practice, knowing that our brothers are gone, it showed that we all can play the position. It don’t matter who goes down. It’s one purpose, one goal: to stop the run and getting after the quarterback.”
Mike Neal, the converted defensive end, made his second start at left outside linebacker opposite Perry.
Andy Mulumba, a rookie free agent from Eastern Michigan, rotated on both sides until Perry limped off. After that, rookie Nate Palmer, a sixth-round draft choice from Illinois State, estimated he played about 10 snaps in relief.
It was the first time Palmer had played from scrimmage.
Hawk was joined inside by Jamari Lattimore, a free agent from Middle Tennessee State who played his rookie year outside before being shifted inside in 2012.
Although this was by far the most Lattimore had ever played in the regular season, his confidence was high.
“Can’t judge a book by its cover,” he said. “All of our linebackers are good so we don’t have no worries. A credit to all of us, and credit to the Packers getting guys in that can play.
“Good players and good coaches define the game. It was a collective win.”
Lattimore led the linebackers with two tackles for loss.
On the Ravens’ second play, Lattimore roamed into the left flat and wrestled down Ray Rice for minus-2 on a check-down. On the first play of the second half, he blew up a block by fullback Vonta Leach and made a smashing hit of Bernard Pierce for minus-3.
Meanwhile, Hawk had a career-high three sacks and 10 tackles, including one for loss.
He shot through the A gap for one sack of Joe Flacco, slipped between guard Marshall Yanda and Rice for another and chased the quarterback out of bounds for a third.
“A.J. played probably one of his best games,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “And Jamari was making plays.”
Hawk hammered Rice for minus-3 on a run off right tackle. Later, Neal stayed home on a reverse by wide receiver Marlon Brown in which cornerback Micah Hyde made the tackle for minus-2.
“Our linebackers are playing with their hair on fire,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “But you saw the (training) camp practices. This shouldn’t be a surprise.
“I’m proud of those guys. Nate Palmer, Mulumba and those guys stepped up. Nick Perry played great as well. Next man in is more than just a phrase.”
Hawk called Matthews an “unbelievable player that you can’t replace” but liked the poise and performance he saw from replacements.
“We have to make it work,” he said. “We had a lot of young guys out there today who did a really good job and seemed to handle themselves real well. They stayed composed when the Ravens made a run.”
Across the field, the Ravens lined up at outside linebacker in their version of the 3-4 defense with Terrell Suggs, a Hall of Fame candidate, and highly decorated former Bronco Elvis Dumervil.
Did the presence of such linebacking luminaries inspire the young outside linebackers?
“It did,” Perry said. “There’s great players everywhere, and those guys are big-time players. It’s good to play games like that and kind of show off and do what we do best. These kind of games, we love.”
You can also bet defensive coordinator Dom Capers appreciates the work general manager Ted Thompson did building the corps of linebackers.
It was depth on display Sunday.