GREEN BAY—Jamari Lattimore had this chance last year, but he feels “way better” about it this time, to use his words.
Lattimore will start at inside linebacker for the Packers on Sunday in place of Brad Jones, who has been ruled out with a quad injury. A fourth-year pro, Lattimore got his first four NFL starts last season in place of Jones – three at midseason and another in the regular-season finale – so the duty is nothing new.
Both mentally and physically, though, Lattimore feels different a year later.
Mentally, it’s about the growth he experienced being in the middle of the defense for multiple games, rather than being relegated to special teams, where he’s been a standout since making the roster as an undrafted rookie back in 2011.
“The hunger is always there. It never leaves. It’s just in three years you gain a lot of experience, and when the experience comes, the confidence level shoots through the roof,” Lattimore said. “It’s that simple. Once you know what you’re doing and have 100 percent confidence in yourself, it all falls into place.”
Physically, Lattimore also will be taking the field at full strength, which he confessed on Friday he wasn’t last year. It wasn’t evident in his play – which included a career-best 14 tackles against Cleveland in Week 7, plus sacks in back-to-back games – but Lattimore was dealing all season with some sort of mysterious illness or virus that was never officially diagnosed.
He didn’t mention it publicly or complain, but his words Friday suggested the ailment prevented him from maximizing on his first chance to start. Once Jones was healthy again, Lattimore was replaced in the lineup.
How it plays out this time is anyone’s guess. Jones was limited in practice last week and didn’t play well in Seattle, and Mike McCarthy said his quad injury certainly didn’t help. This week, Jones was been held out of practice entirely, an indication the Packers are going to get him fully healthy now before he returns.
That could mean more than just a cameo for Lattimore, provided he stays healthy himself and performs well. Second-year pro Sam Barrington is his backup.
The Jets bring their two-headed backfield of speedster Chris Johnson and the powerful Chris Ivory to Lambeau Field on Sunday almost certainly intent on running the ball, given their offense’s 200-plus rushing yards last week against Oakland and Green Bay’s 200-plus rushing yards surrendered to the Seahawks.
Lattimore won’t just be filling in. His play against the run could be a huge factor in this game.
“It’s a big opportunity,” McCarthy said. “Anytime you have a chance to go and perform, if you perform at a high level you don’t want to give that spot back. If you look at the history of the National Football League, some of the greatest careers were started because of injury in front of that particular player.”
Lattimore, who started his pro career as an outside linebacker and transitioned to the inside, says he isn’t thinking about it in those terms. Or at least he’s trying not to at the moment.
“For me, yeah, it’s an opportunity, but it’s just doing your job,” he said. “It’s what they bring you in here for, to do your job, for you to play that position. It’s all up the player to be accountable.”
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