Green Bay Packers rookie linebackers show playmaking ability

Aug. 27, 2011

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Indianapolis Colts tight end Jacob Tamme is tackled by Green Bay Packers linebacker D.J. Smith as Packers cornerback Brandon Underwood looks on during the third quarter of Friday's preseason game in Indianapolis. / Jeff Roberson/AP


Early in training camp, the Green Bay Packers’ coaches kept saying the rookies were swimming in new information and not playing full speed because they were trying to avoid mistakes.

Well, in the Packers’ third preseason game, at Indianapolis on Friday, we saw some of those young guys playing more freely.

Based on the game videotape, something clicked with linebacker D.J. Smith, a sixth-round draft pick as an undersized (5-foot-10 5/8) linebacker out of Appalachian State. He started the second half at inside linebacker and finished with five tackles and a sack.

Smith looks like he has a pretty good feel for the game and was out of position on only one play. The Packers drafted him probably because of his explosion to the ball. When he sees the ball he doesn’t let it come to him, he attacks it. Impressive.

Another rookie who’s now a dark horse to make the team is undrafted outside linebacker Vic So’oto out of Brigham Young. At 6-3 and 263, he was a defensive end in college, and early in camp I thought he couldn’t play his new position. I still don’t know if he’s the answer as a backup now that Frank Zombo is out for a while because of a broken shoulder blade, but So’oto has come around. He had a sack, put on consistent pressure and was good against the run.

So’oto is unnatural in coverage — that’s part of the deal when you make that position change. But he brought some physicalness to the edge. Brad Jones, on the other hand, didn’t show much as the first outside linebacker off the bench. He’s not explosive.

Ricky Elmore, another sixth-round pick, is out of the picture at outside linebacker for sure. Undrafted rookie Jamari Lattimore had a sack in the second half, but against the backups, whereas So’oto did it against the Colts’ starters. The Packers threw in So’oto with the No. 1 defense to see if they should hang on to him, and his deal will be whether he can hold up in pass coverage. I don’t know if he has the niftiness to do it, but he can rush and is physical against the run, so he has two of the three.

Offensive line abused

The Colts sacked Aaron Rodgers four times in the first half, so the Packers have some figuring out to do on their offensive line.

You can’t say the problem was a new starter at left guard, T.J. Lang, because Lang didn’t get burned. Left tackle Chad Clifton gave up two sacks and had a holding penalty, and right guard Josh Sitton gave up one sack. Plus, the sacks weren’t mental mistakes, because Indianapolis didn’t blitz at all. It was all one-on-one blocking.

Clifton looked out of sorts. I don’t know if it’s because the 35-year-old isn’t getting enough reps in practice because they’re trying to keep him healthy for the season, or if he’s hitting the wall — sometimes that can happen fast. Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney is one of the league’s best rushers, but it’s a concern that he walked Clifton back several times, because power isn’t Freeney’s deal. Freeney is a speed and spin rusher.

You probably have to take the no-huddle into account, too — the Packers’ starters went no-huddle on four of their five possessions, all in the first half. This was the longest their starting line had played in a preseason game this year, and Clifton probably got winded. Maybe you can’t go no-huddle every series. Maybe running it in back-to-back possessions loses its advantage if some of the offensive linemen can’t handle it.

As far as Clifton’s backup, I don’t think first-round pick Derek Sherrod is ready to go, so second-year pro Marshall Newhouse could be next in line even though he played only right tackle Friday night.

Extra points

• Tight end Jermichael Finley is such dynamic a receiver it’s easy to overlook his blocking. Early in his career he probably didn’t want to block, and I doubt it’s his favorite thing now, but he did well when they lined him tight to the formation or in the backfield as a lead blocker against the Colts. He got his hands on guys and kept them out of the pile. That’s Finley’s next step and will make him a better receiver because he can show block to a linebacker or safety then go downfield. The Packers will need him to block if they’re to have any success running the ball, especially with how poorly the offensive line played against the Colts.

• Rookie halfback Alex Green has some burst that Ryan Grant and James Starks don’t. Grant and Starks are good at what they do — they have power and can cut. But they don’t strike fear in a defense that it has to be tight or this guy’s going to take it to the house. Former Packers halfback Ahman Green had that home-run ability. All he needed was a block or to make a guy miss and he could take it all the way. Alex Green might have some of that, and he has some wiggle, too. He showed it on a run in the third quarter when he put his foot down, made a quick move and got 9 yards.

• Outside linebacker Clay Matthews showed again why he’s a game changer. The way he came around the corner on that sack in the first quarter, he was literally 18 inches off the ground. Not many human beings can do that.

• If the Packers keep a sixth receiver, I’d give the edge to Chastin West over Tori Gurley. West’s 97-yard touchdown catch last week against Arizona might have looked like just good circumstances, but he looked pretty decent against Indianapolis, too. He had two receptions plus a 20-yard touchdown catch from Rodgers that was called back because of Clifton’s holding penalty. But West’s edge is more because of special teams. He’s willing to hit and block and tackle. I like Gurley as a receiver, but he doesn’t do much on special teams, and when you’re the fifth or sixth wide receiver, you have to be good on special teams.

Green Bay Press-Gazette correspondent Eric Baranczyk played football at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and later served as an assistant coach. He will provide periodic evaluations of the Packers during training camp.

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