Aaron Nagler discusses the latest news out of Packers training camp, including an ankle injury for Bryan Bulaga. (Aug. 23, 2017)
GREEN BAY – It was strange at first, learning to play without one hand on the ground. Reggie Gilbert tried for the first time a year ago, standing in that staggered stance all Green Bay Packers outside linebackers use.
To Gilbert, the game felt foreign.
As a college defender, Gilbert was a defensive end in Arizona’s base 3-3-5 defense. He split time between the five tech (head up against an offensive tackle) and four tech (shaded against the tackle’s inside shoulder), always in a three-point stance.
New to an outside linebacker’s two-point stance, Gilbert said it was difficult to gain leverage against an offensive tackle. His pads always felt too high. His pass rush was too easy to stymie.
At times last season, Gilbert reverted to his old playing style, placing one hand – and sometimes two – on the ground in clear passing downs.
RELATED: Build your own Packers roster
CAMP INSIDER: Sixth-round pick Kofi Amichia struggling
“I was just so used to coming out of a three-point stance and stacking a block,” Gilbert said, referring to a technique that holds the point of attack on the defensive line. “It was like, you already have that low center of gravity. So you didn’t have to really concentrate on staying low that much, getting your pads into an offensive lineman. Whereas in a two-point stance, you’re standing up so you have to really sink your hips, which is something that we practice every day.
“You have to just sink your hips, and you have to practice that get-off, so you can be able to stay low under their pad level.”
For one year, Gilbert toiled away on the Packers' practice squad, rewiring how he rushed the quarterback. He trained at the Fischer’s Institute in Phoenix this spring, working with personal coach Thurmond Moore, a defensive line specialist and former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator.
His reps started in a two-point stance.
When he returned to Green Bay for the start of organized team activities this spring, Gilbert said, he felt like a different player. More comfortable. At ease standing on those two feet. He started showing progress early in camp, even before he shot from that two-point stance late in the fourth quarter Saturday night, beating the right tackle to sack Washington quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
Gilbert’s sack was the highlight on an opportunistic preseason. His shot at the Packers' 53-man roster might be aligning. With rookie outside linebacker Vince Biegel missing the entire offseason recovering from foot surgery, jobs are available on the Packers' outside linebacker depth chart.
While Biegel is likely to start the season on the active roster, the Packers could benefit from adding an extra outside linebacker for depth.
There’s a long way to go in a preseason that’s only half finished, but Gilbert might have the best chance of cracking the 53-man roster as a sixth outside linebacker. Veterans from both ends of the locker room hold Gilbert in warm regards, respecting his constant work ethic.
Clay Matthews said he has seen “tremendous growth” in the past year.
“He probably made the most progress out of any of the, specifically outside linebackers,” Matthews said, “but any of the practice-squad guys. Just because the way he was able to turn the corner, bend, going against Bryan (Bulaga) and Dave (Bakhtiari) almost every day. We put on last year’s one-on-ones just to watch, and it was just two different guys.
“So I think he’s really flashing, and I think you saw that with a couple of his rushes last week, especially in the fourth quarter, in crunch time. So I really like his game.”
Then Matthews added a major compliment, saying, “I personally feel like we have a lot in common. I just feel like he’s an athlete. He can bend the corner, uses his hands well at the same time. Mixes it up with physicality. So I like his game.”
Gilbert said some of his history as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end translates to his new position at outside linebacker.
He’s still rushing against offensive tackles, so the blocks are similar. Even if it’s more difficult to gain leverage, Gilbert said hand placement and pad level are similar.
But outside linebacker is a different position entirely. Gilbert has more responsibilities in pass coverage, something he rarely did at Arizona. He’s also rushing more from the edge as a seven or nine tech, starting from outside the offensive tackle.
“I really wasn’t that much of an edge rusher (at Arizona),” Gilbert said, “just because we played a 3-3-5. So a lot of times, I was inside reading, playing runs, taking on double teams and stuff like that. So I wasn’t able to really try to just hone in on how to actually rush a passer.”
On the practice squad, Gilbert spent last season refining his pass-rush skills against two of the league’s better tackles.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari said he has had more practice reps against Gilbert than any defensive end in the past year. During practice, Bakhtiari would watch Gilbert seek advice from veteran outside linebackers Matthews, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers. Then between breaks, Bakhtiari said, Gilbert approached him with questions.
It’s the same way Bakhtiari learned when he was younger, he said. Bakhtiari remembers approaching Matthews as a rookie, asking for advice each time his block was beaten in practice. Now, he’s the one sharing advice.
Bakhtiari said he has seen Gilbert add pieces to his game since arriving.
“I think he’s starting to pick up on that,” Bakhtiari said, “and starting to use it now, thinking more like an offensive lineman and setting us up. I think that’s where you see the growth that you’re talking about. He’s understanding more. He’s getting more comfortable. He’s playing more the game, instead of just running around. He’s understanding the angles, how to learn when to flip his hips, timing, when to jump on stuff.
“So I’ve definitely seen growth, and I’m proud of him.”