Green Bay Packers' Robert Francois, left, makes an interception against the the Detroit Lions during the third quarter of the game at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich., on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
D.J. Smith went through his normal pregame routine on Thanksgiving Day, including calling his mother. She told him to play hard and to be ready because you never know what could happen.
A mother always seems to know.
“I was like, 'I love you, mom,'” the Packers’ rookie inside linebacker said. “I’m going to play good for you.”
Yes. Yes, he did.
The Packers realized a doomsday situation — or so most thought — in Detroit as Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk went down with injuries — Bishop in the first quarter and Hawk in the third.
The inside linebacker position had been considered to have some of the biggest depth issues on the roster. Those thoughts may have changed after Smith, in for Bishop, and Robert Francois excelled in the 27-15 win at Ford Field.
Smith had four tackles, one off of the team high, and Francois had a leaping interception after giving up consecutive receptions. They did it while calling the plays off hand signals from the bench because Hawk and Bishop are equipped with the defensive speakers.
The availability of the pair of starters, who sustained calf strains, is in doubt for Sunday’s game against the New York Giants. That would leave Francois to make the second start of his career. Smith could get his first.
“I’m still going to bring the same work ethic as I do every week, every day out there,” Francois said. “Obviously, I would have a more important role in the defense, not just special teams.
“There’s a lot more on me.”
Francois hadn’t been active the previous five games. The Packers used him for a few snaps at outside linebacker, his natural position, against the Broncos in Week 4.
Francois said he expects to make plays and knows how limited opportunities can be. Bishop received defensive snaps in just three games in 2009, then he posted 121 tackles and earned a new contract in 2010 after Nick Barnett was lost for the season.
“I know the defense and stuff, so it’s not a shock,” said Francois, who was cut, signed to the practice squad and promoted to the active roster multiple times in 2010. “I’m not worried or nothing like that. I’m ready to play whenever I’m called upon.
“Any time you get a chance to go out there, you’ve got to try to prove that you’re worth it. No telling how long guys will be out for. I’ve just got to make the best of it.”
At least Francois has experience with the sudden changes of NFL life. Thursday was new to Smith. The sixth-rounder out of Appalachian State wasn’t expected to contribute much in 2011, but Smith was the first name called when an inside linebacker went down. His 5-foot-11 height has been a knock on the rookie, but he plays with speed and showed aggressiveness with a first-snap tackle of running back Maurice Morris in the hole. Smith likely will be the starter if either Bishop or Hawk cannot go.
In the meanwhile, at the advice of mom, Smith stays ready for anything.
“Doesn’t change my mentality,” Smith said. “Just stick to my routine. Do what I do best. Just learn, look up to these guys and just play the system.
“In my mind, you never know. You have to keep that — you never know, you never know. Just going into practice I try to take every rep, whether it be the scout team or with the defense, I try to take every rep like it’s my last and play hard.”
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