GREEN BAY—As Brad Jones mentally grows more and more comfortable at inside linebacker, partner A.J. Hawk is physically feeling better than ever.
The Packers’ starting duo in the middle of Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense, together as starters in training camp for the first time, arrived at 2013 from different directions.
Jones is the former seventh-round pick and converted outside linebacker who, when healthy, has surprised observers with his productivity. Hawk is the former first-round pick who has routinely faced criticism for not living up to the “game-changing” label that comes with being drafted No. 5 overall.
But the two are similar in that neither player cares about the past, both know Capers’ playbook cover to cover, and they’re being counted on to keep the Packers’ front seven in the right positions, snap after snap.
“I think I’m just naturally a loud person, I guess,” Jones said of the vocal leadership in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage that comes with his job. “I don’t know. I think I fell into that aspect pretty well. It came natural.”
The coaching staff said last season that Jones looked more natural at inside linebacker than his original outside spot. He made a splash as a rookie in 2009, chalking up a handful of sacks after Aaron Kampman was injured, but dealt with injuries in 2010.
He proceeded to become a special-teams stalwart as he was converting to the inside. Then last season, he seized his opportunity when season-ending injuries befell Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, both since released in part due to Jones’ performance down the stretch in 2012, which included six games with double-digit tackles.
Jones’ versatility paid off in the form of a new contract this offseason, but so has his cerebral approach. A film-study junkie – “Game film and tendencies, that’s kind of my thing,” he said – Jones has taken to love his new position because his vantage point from the center of the field melds perfectly with his daily homework.
“You can see everything from inside,” he said. “It’s easier to see what everybody is doing and make those connections between the charts that you took watching film the whole week. It helps tremendously. Once you can break down tendencies, you can see it all. It’s crystal clear.”
Hawk made it clear that even though he’s one of the “older guys” in the Packers’ locker room, he doesn’t feel old. The eight-year veteran says at 29 he feels better than he did at 20 in college, and he suggested he's physically "peaking."
He credits several things for that, among them regular acupuncture and massages, plus better nutrition and, perhaps first and foremost, Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Mark Lovat. Hawk said the way Lovat changed his mentality and approach to working out over the years has been invaluable.
“In the past, I used to sit in the weight room and just do stupid stuff for three, four hours at a time, just killing myself, killing my body, which was good. I think it built up a great foundation,” Hawk said. “But now, I’m in and out. I’m super high-paced, high-tempo, try to simulate game-type things when I’m in the weight room.”
The oft-noted knock against Hawk is he’s never been a big-play defender, with just 13 ½ sacks, eight interceptions and six combined forced fumbles and recoveries over seven seasons.
But on a team that in recent years has been decimated by injuries, Hawk has only missed two of a possible 120 games, including playoffs, in his career. He also has ranked first or second on the team in tackles in all but one season.
“They put a price on durability here,” Hawk said. “They love guys that can be durable, and I’ve proven to be durable for the most part, I guess. I never try to get too high, too low, whatever’s happening. I’ve been through plenty of ups and downs personally as a player.”
The biggest downs have been the way the last two seasons have ended, with dismal defensive performances in the playoffs against the Giants and 49ers.
Inside linebacker is not a high-profile position in a Capers 3-4, so Jones and Hawk aren’t being touted as the difference-makers to get the defense over the playoff hump. Players like Datone Jones and Nick Perry, who weren’t a part of either of those two playoff losses, are more likely to be viewed that way.
But the coaching staff and front office have routinely preached that the greatest improvement must come from within, namely from the veteran players.
In more ways than one, Jones and Hawk are right in the middle of this defense.
“We got blasted twice,” Hawk said of the last two playoff exits. “They took it from us. As a defense, we let our offense down.
“We’ve watched the season many times. We’ve made some strides, but we definitely know where we need to get better.” Additional coverage - Aug. 2