By now, everyone, especially the Green Bay Packer faithful, are well aware of the Packers’ 32nd ranked defense, thanks in large part to giving up over 500 yards of total offense in their last regular season game against the Detroit Lions. There is no doubt that the focal point of this training camp will be the re-tooling of this defense, with the key additions of rookies like Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, and Casey Hayward.
And once again, inside linebacker AJ Hawk is taking the heat for being the primary weakness for a defense that struggled against the run. Many are even stating that 2011 sixth round pick DJ Smith, who held up well in relief of Hawk when he missed games due to injury, could push Hawk for the starting position next to Desmond Bishop, who himself pushed out Nick Barnett last season after he started ten games after he was put out for the rest of the season.
But, should we be so quick to discount Hawk?
Well, the former fifth overall pick hasn’t exactly taken the NFL by storm. He has not been the best in coverage, but has outplayed the other linebackers that have come on the roster to keep his place. His best season was in 2010 during the Packers’ Super Bowl run, where he was essentially the quarterback of the defense and made his first and only Pro Bowl.
But, therein lies what peopple should not readily discount Hawk for: his ability to run the defense.
The years that the Packers had one of the best defenses in the NFL, Hawk was at the helm, calling the defenses and lining everybody up in the right place. The coaching staff even noted how Hawk called the plays at times when the Packers were unable to receive the plays from defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
While DJ Smith has shown that he could have a future with this team or another, he is still learning, and his presence over a three game stretch did little to really impact the game in such a way that could make fans think that he is pushing Hawk for a starting spot. 2011 was a down year for Hawk, especially after a year where he played in a way that he actually became an integral part of that 2010 Packers defense.
Could Hawk be more explosive? Of course. But the same argument could be made for running back James Starks, who could be blamed for not making enough of an impact in the running game like he did in the Packers Super Bowl run.
Could Hawk have done better in helping to shore up the running game? Yes, the whole defense needed to get better in every aspect. But Hawk is not the sole source of the problem at linebacker. And starting DJ Smith is not the answer to re-tooling a 32nd ranked defense, especially when he is still raw and in need of work and development.
AJ Hawk is the quarterback of this Packer defense along the front seven, and going into 2012, is a step forward in returning this defense to its 2010 form.