Reshuffling at LB Will Be Critical

LB Nick Barnett (Alan Diaz/AP)

The Green Bay Packers haven't stopped the run very well, and now young Matt Forte, maybe the Offensive Rookie of the Year in this league, comes to Titletown. The Bears always want to run the football, so can the Pack's new LB corps stop them? Get the Inside Slant from the NFL experts at Scout.com.

Aaron James – A.J. for short – Hawk inherited a new football name this week.

The Packers' 2006 first-round draft pick is making the transition from weak-side (aka Will) linebacker to middle (Mike) linebacker. The midseason move was predicated by the season-ending loss of Nick Barnett to a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Barnett, Green Bay's starter in the middle since the onset of his pro career in 2003, suffered the injury early in the second half of the Packers' 28-27 loss at Minnesota on Sunday.

Hawk hasn't lined up exclusively at middle linebacker since his senior year at Centerville (Ohio) High School in 2001, but he doesn't regard the position switch as a grand occasion.

"When it comes down to it, football is a simple game," Hawk said. "As linebackers, you're trying to tackle the guy with the ball. So, that's my goal."

Hawk took the majority of practice reps Wednesday at middle linebacker, where he's expected to make the start Sunday against the visiting Chicago Bears.

Head coach Mike McCarthy was evasive in comments made Wednesday about how the Packers would compensate for Barnett's absence, saying the rest of the linebackers were cross-training to play multiple positions.

As it stands, Hawk will be flanked by Brady Poppinga on the strong side and Brandon Chillar as the fill-in on the weak side. Desmond Bishop also factors in for possible playing time, but the second-year player is a natural middle linebacker and apparently will have to bide his time behind Hawk now.

"A.J. is getting a lot of work there, and we just have to be ready just to be able to move in and out of our different personnel groups," McCarthy said. "I'm very confident with a week's work that we'll be fine."

The major adjustment for Hawk in becoming the man in the middle is he'll be charged with relaying the plays for the defense from the radio he'll have in his helmet. Hawk handled those responsibilities after Barnett left the last game and also did some play-calling when he was an outside linebacker in college at Ohio State.

"It's all just still football," Hawk said of sliding inside. "But it's just kind of seeing the game from a little different perspective, in being in the middle of the field and kind of running inside-out to all of the plays instead of you're chasing things from the back side like you are at the Will position a lot."


LB A.J. Hawk
Mike Roemer/AP Images

Chicago All-Pro Brian Urlacher, Hawk's counterpart on Sunday, wasn't aware of Barnett's injury and the resulting lineup shakeup at LB for the Packers until Wednesday. Urlacher believes that the experience and leadership Barnett brought to middle linebacker won't be easy to replace.

"It's a tough position to kind of just throw somebody in there," Urlacher said.

The Packers have yet to place Barnett on injured reserve. McCarthy said his mostly healthy team isn't pressed to have the roster spot filled.

For the foreseeable future, the onus falls on Hawk and those surrounding him at the linebacker spots to try to make an impact for a defense that has been shredded by teams' running the football.

"I've said all along, linebacker is one of our greatest positions of depth," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "Now, we get a chance to really reflect that and show that this Sunday,"

NOTES & QUOTES
After cornerback Charles Woodson picked back up with a Friday-only practice schedule last week for the first time since last season, left tackle Chad Clifton is re-acclimating himself this week to midweek practices.

Clifton, a nine-year veteran who has been hampered by knee problems in recent years, was an unusual practice participant Wednesday. He also was slated to practice Thursday, another day that had previously been set aside for him to rest the knees. McCarthy said having Clifton involved more in practice, instead of just on Fridays as had been customary for much of the season, will be beneficial for the continuity of the offensive line.

The preference to have Clifton as a regular practice participant again also is for personal reasons, given that he has been inconsistent this season and is coming off a subpar performance against the Minnesota Vikings' Jared Allen in the Packers' loss Sunday.

"I think it will help Chad if he practices more during the week, and I think Chad would probably say the same thing," McCarthy said.

Woodson, another veteran who had the blessing of McCarthy to take extra time off during the week to rest a broken toe he sustained in the season opener, felt he would do himself and the defense good by practicing on Fridays again. Woodson was on a similarly abbreviated schedule his first two years with the team as he nursed an assortment of injuries. …

After losing by a point at Minnesota last weekend in a division game they felt they needed to win, the Packers go into Sunday's home matchup with the Chicago Bears with a greater sense of urgency.

Green Bay, which has lost two straight, is 4-5 and a game behind co-leaders Chicago and Minnesota in the NFC North.

"It's definitely urgent," McCarthy said. "We're in November football. I think once you get to November the standings really start to mean something, and that's where we are. We're one game behind the team we're playing this week, so it's important for us to beat them and that's really the way we view it." …

McCarthy indicated in a conference call with Chicago reporters Wednesday that he had some form of recent communication with former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

Green Bay parted ways with its 16-year starter in August, trading him to the New York Jets after Favre came out of retirement and the two sides were entangled in a messy situation.

"I have no negative feelings toward Brett," McCarthy said Wednesday. "I got congratulations from him when my daughter was born (Oct. 22)." …

The Bears have won the last four meetings with the Packers at Lambeau Field.

The longest winning streak by an opponent against Green Bay in games played in Wisconsin is seven games by the Vikings, from 1971-77. Chicago won five in a row on the road against the Packers from 1984-88. …

Right tackle Mark Tauscher on Wednesday earned the honor as the team's 2008 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

Tauscher and 31 other players – one from each team – will be considered for the league award. The winner will be announced before kickoff of Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa on Feb. 1.

The Man of the Year award recognizes off-the-field community service and playing excellence.

Tauscher receives a $1,000 donation for a children's reading foundation he established in 2005.

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