Healthy Lattimore ready for his shot
Jamari Lattimore sat at the center of an empty Green Bay Packers' locker room Friday afternoon, waiting for the horde of media to approach in the wake of the news Brad Jones won't play against the New York Jets.
Patience is nothing new for Lattimore. As a former undrafted free agent, his first three seasons have been mostly spent biding his time on special teams in hope of a larger role.
Lattimore won't admit it, but he stands on the verge of that opportunity this Sunday. Jones already has been declared out with a lingering quad injury.
While Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn't directly name Lattimore the team's new starting inside linebacker, his words still seemed to suggest the fourth-year veteran will line up next to A.J. Hawk.
It's not the first time Lattimore has been called upon in Jones' absence — he started four games last season — but history shows there's a good chance of the move becoming permanent if he performs.
Desmond Bishop took the reins from an injured Nick Barnett in 2010 and held the job until he tore his hamstring before the 2012 season. Jones took over after Bishop's replacement, D.J. Smith, was lost to a torn ACL early in the season.
"It's not a break," Lattimore said. "Every play is important to me because when I'm on the field I get to make a play. For me, yes, it's an opportunity, but it's just doing your job. What they brought you in here for, for you to do your job, for you to play that position."
In his four starts in place of Jones, Lattimore finished with career-highs in tackles (35) and sacks (two) and a forced fumble. He had 12 of those tackles in the Packers' 31-13 win over Cleveland in October.
Overall, Lattimore saw his defensive snaps jump from eight in 2012 to 265. Known for his fiery disposition, Lattimore also played the fourth-most snaps on special teams (271).
It all came with Lattimore not feeling like himself due to a mysterious illness for most of the season. He declined to go into details Friday, but described it as a stomach virus mixed with an allergic reaction.
Lattimore said it was similar to the bout with colitis former Packers linebacker Terrell Manning quietly suffered with during training camp in 2012. Only no one could find a bug associated with his illness.
Lattimore was eventually prescribed medicine. Still, it was a long and frustrating process to finding answers.
"If a person tells you they don't know what's wrong with you, how would you take it?" Lattimore said. "It was just something that was never diagnosed. They really don't know. I was stuck with a 'don't know.'"
From the outside, it was difficult to notice. Aside from missing the first two days of training camp with what described at the time as "a gastrointestinal issue," Lattimore was available for 15 regular-season games and managed to have his most productive professional season.
The only game Lattimore missed, the Packers' Thanksgiving loss to Detroit, was due to a quad injury.
"It's a lot to ask of your body to go out and play a whole game, plus everything else, plus not feeling good, plus on top of this, it's just a lot," Lattimore said. "You know, stuff can bring you down a little bit, but it really wasn't nothing."
Already a question mark heading into the season, the Packers' inside linebacker position came under fire after the Seattle Seahawks torched Green Bay's defense for 398 total yards in last Thursday's 36-16 defeat.
Jones, who had suffered a quad injury in the preseason, had issues in the run game with three missed tackles of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
A seventh-round pick in 2009, Jones enjoyed his best season in 2012 when he had 77 tackles, two sacks and four pass deflections in 16 games with 10 starts. It was enough to convince the Packers to part ways with Bishop the following offseason and re-sign Jones to a three-year, $11.4 million contract.
Jones missed three games early last season with a hamstring injury and was hampered by an ankle injury down the stretch.
"Brad has played a lot of really good football for us," linebackers coach Winston Moss said Thursday. "I'm looking forward to him just simply getting back into it and putting himself back in a position that allows him to help us out."
Despite the questions about depth at the position, the Packers opted against drafting any natural inside linebackers in May's NFL draft. Their biggest move was giving Lattimore a one-year, $1.4 million restricted tender this offseason to keep him off the market.
They've also been pleased with the growth of 2013 seventh-round pick Sam Barrington, who played seven games last season before being tossed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. He played only one defensive snap his rookie season.
Lattimore received a lot of work with the starting defense during the offseason program due to injuries. Now, he'll get a chance to show it in an actual game.
"I would think anytime you get a chance to go and perform, if you perform at a high level, you don't want to give that spot back," McCarthy said. "I think that's the part of injury. You look at the history of the National Football League, some of the greatest careers were started because of an injury in front of that particular player. This is a big opportunity."
Lattimore and the Packers' run defense are in for a significant test against a New York Jets' offense that ran all over Oakland in last week's 19-14 victory. Their 212 rushing yards paced the NFL in Week 1.
Lattimore believes he's up to the task, both physically and mentally.
"I feel like this year is a good year. I feel good," Lattimore said. "Once you feel great, if anybody was sick like I was, once you feel great, you know that anything else is a plus."
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod