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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 Packersí 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 Packersí 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 doesnít let it come to him, he attacks it. Impressive.

Another rookie whoís now a dark horse to make the team is undrafted outside linebacker Vic Soíoto out of Brigham Young. At 6-3 and 263, he was a defensive end in college, and early in camp I thought he couldnít play his new position. I still donít know if heís the answer as a backup now that Frank Zombo is out for a while because of a broken shoulder blade, but Soíoto has come around. He had a sack, put on consistent pressure and was good against the run.

Soíoto is unnatural in coverage ó thatís part of the deal when you make that position change. But he brought some physicalness to the edge. Brad Jones, on the other hand, didnít show much as the first outside linebacker off the bench. Heís 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 Soíoto did it against the Coltsí starters. The Packers threw in Soíoto 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 donít 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 canít say the problem was a new starter at left guard, T.J. Lang, because Lang didnít 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 werenít mental mistakes, because Indianapolis didnít blitz at all. It was all one-on-one blocking.

Clifton looked out of sorts. I donít know if itís because the 35-year-old isnít getting enough reps in practice because theyíre trying to keep him healthy for the season, or if heís hitting the wall ó sometimes that can happen fast. Indianapolisí Dwight Freeney is one of the leagueís best rushers, but itís a concern that he walked Clifton back several times, because power isnít Freeneyís deal. Freeney is a speed and spin rusher.

You probably have to take the no-huddle into account, too ó the Packersí 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 canít go no-huddle every series. Maybe running it in back-to-back possessions loses its advantage if some of the offensive linemen canít handle it.

As far as Cliftonís backup, I donít 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 itís easy to overlook his blocking. Early in his career he probably didnít want to block, and I doubt itís 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. Thatís Finleyís 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 theyíre 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 donít. Grant and Starks are good at what they do ó they have power and can cut. But they donít strike fear in a defense that it has to be tight or this guyís 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 heís 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, Iíd give the edge to Chastin West over Tori Gurley. Westís 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 Cliftonís holding penalty. But Westís edge is more because of special teams. Heís willing to hit and block and tackle. I like Gurley as a receiver, but he doesnít do much on special teams, and when youíre 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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