Green Bay Packers linebacker Frank Zombo, left, and fullback John Kuhn run drills during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Frank Zombo was the starter in Super Bowl XLV, the starter in Saturday’s preseason opener at Cleveland and the starter again at practice on Monday.
Though the Green Bay Packers have yet to declare anyone the winner in the competition to be paired with Clay Matthews at outside linebacker, it’s Zombo’s job to lose.
If the Packers were going to make a change at this point, it almost certainly would have happened on Monday. In years past, changes on the depth chart often have occurred following the first preseason game. But there was Zombo, again getting the first reps at right outside linebacker. In every team period, he and Matthews would take the first few snaps and give away to Brad Jones and Erik Walden, who would take the second set of snaps at left and right outside linebacker, respectively.
The second-year pro, who last summer won a roster spot as an undrafted free agent and became the full-time starter in Week 8 after Jones sustained a season-ending shoulder injury, has been the most consistent of the Zombo-Walden-Jones trio.
Though Zombo lost his only rep in the one-on-one pass rushing drill on Monday, when he got blocked by rookie Derek Sherrod, his 7-7 record in the drill is easily tops among the trio. Walden won his only rep on Monday, beating rookie tackle Theo Sherman, but that improved his record to only 6-11. Jones has been largely ineffective, losing on Monday to Bryan Bulaga to fall to 4-15.
“My pass rush has been great. I think I’m dropping (into coverage) well and I understand the defense,” Zombo said. “So yeah, I feel like in a way it’s my job to lose.”
The Packers didn’t have Zombo, Walden and Jones all healthy at the same time last season, so now they have the luxury of splitting snaps. Zombo is probably the best against the run, although he said he has worked to improve his pass rushing. Walden is the best pass rusher, while Jones is the most athletic. Jones and Walden have bigger roles on special teams than Zombo does.
“The rotation of Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and even Brad Jones, I think all of those guys have done very well when I look at that position,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m more interested in the balance between outside linebacker snaps and special teams. It’s something we need to balance out not only in training camp but once we get into the games. We’re going to play a lot of different subpackages throughout the season. That’s where those reps and those players will definitely balance out.”
Developing another pass rusher to tag team with Matthews is perhaps the most pressing question the defense is facing this preseason. To that end, Zombo said he spent his offseason trying to get quicker and more explosive with his first step, something he saw as critical to improving his chances of getting to the quarterback. Last season, Zombo had four sacks in the regular season but missed the final three games plus the first three postseason games because of a sprained knee. Walden took over and had three sacks — all in the regular-season finale against Chicago — and one more in the postseason.
Zombo returned for Super Bowl XLV, a game Walden missed because of ankle injury, and had another sack.
“Obviously, there’s only one Clay Matthews,” Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “So you can’t expect another Clay to show up. It’s not going to happen. But we need someone that, on run plays, sets the edge so backs can’t get outside of us, and on pass rush just push the pocket. Zombo was our starter in the Super Bowl, so we don’t have any doubts about him. But it’s all about the competition.”
Zombo said he trimmed his body fat from 16 to 12 percent this offseason while staying at the same weight, 249 pounds, he was last season. He bought a bicycle and rode 15 miles every day around his hometown of Sterling Heights, Mich., for the first month of the offseason. He wanted to completely heal his injured knee, which he said wasn’t 100 percent in the Super Bowl, before starting more intense workouts. He then trained with teammates T.J. Lang and Nick McDonald at a Detroit-area gym.
“I tried to get more athletic, faster and more fluid,” Zombo said. “I felt kind of robotic in a way last year, so I tried to get quicker. I think I have. Get-off is so important as a pass rusher. That first initial burst is very important.”
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