The Green Bay Packers’ decision to cut ties with Desmond Bishop this offseason was met with plenty of skepticism at first.
Behind starting inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, third-year pro Jamari Lattimore represented their only reserve who actually played the position in an NFL game in 2012 – even if it was for only eight snaps.
Maybe the Packers should’ve considered giving him a few more.
Lattimore has been on a tear in three games starting in place of Jones, who suffered an aggravated hamstring earlier this season. The 25-year-old former undrafted free agent has 19 tackles during that stretch and registered a sack in each of the Packers’ last two games.
It’s come to the point that the Packers might have to consider finding him on a role on defense even though Jones appears to be nearing a return to the field.
“Yeah, I think he sure has,” said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers of Lattimore working his way into the conversation. “He’s athletic. With a lot of these spread offenses, they’re giving you three, four wide receivers and have really good receiving running backs, that type of thing, I think he’s a guy who’s going to be a matchup guy for us.”
The thing about Lattimore is he wasn’t even the first option. A stalwart on special teams, he didn’t see the field until fourth-year veteran Robert Francois tore his Achilles tendon 12 snaps after replacing Jones in a 22-9 win over Detroit earlier this month.
Lattimore was one of three undrafted rookies to make the Packers’ roster in 2011 after being utilized as a defensive end at Middle Tennessee State. Despite entering the league around 228 pounds, Capers opted to line him up as an outside linebacker to take advantage of his athleticism.
He registered only four special-teams tackles in nine games as a rookie before the defensive coaches finally decided to shift him and Jones to inside linebacker, a switch that paid dividends for both players over the past two seasons.
Working outside served as a transitional position for where the Packers are playing Lattimore these days. Thus far, he’s been tenacious on single-coverage tackles, inside blitzes and in defending the run. His 11 stops over the last four games are already the fifth most on the defense, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I think it does because he has a little different perspective of the defense,” said Capers of how outside linebacker aided Lattimore’s development. “He has a good feel of what those outside guys are doing and what the front guys are doing and how he has to fit off of those guys and understand his gap control and all those things.”
Along with being able to cut down runners and receivers in open space, Lattimore’s aggressiveness and athleticism has enabled the Packers to continue calling the inside blitzes Jones had been having success with early this season.
If Jones returns this week, the Packers will have plenty of options to choose from. One of them could see Jones returning to his dime linebacker spot with Lattimore rotating in during the 3-4 Okie and nickel packages.
“Brad’s still going through his injury situation. I’m hopeful that he can get back this week,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Once again, I answer this question all the time, we play with more than 11 guys on offense, defense and special teams. It would be great to have them all back. I’m looking forward to being in that situation.’
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