He was released on Tuesday, Sept. 28, the third time in his career he was handed his walking papers.
Fast forward 14 weeks and here was Walden, the fifth player other than Clay Matthews to start at outside linebacker for the Packers this season, having the game of his life to help Green Bay secure a playoff berth.
Walden helped lead a stellar overall defensive effort in the 10-3 victory over Chicago with a team-high 11 tackles and the first two sacks of his career.
“He showed up big,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “He had a phenomenal game. When guys step up like that and play big like that, it makes it easy for all of us. I appreciate him going out there and making plays.”
It’s been a common sight on defense this season for the Packers, who have seen player after player go down with injuries. Walden has only been with the Packers for two months, having signed on Oct. 27 before playing in his first Green Bay game four days later. On Sunday he was the latest of the many fill-ins to come through in standout fashion.
“He’s just an excellent example of what’s going on in our program,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s a credit to our program. It starts with the personnel acquisition, and the coaching staff getting players ready and Erik Walden coming in and taking full advantage of his opportunity. I can’t say enough about the young man and the way he’s performed, the way he’s worked.”
Walden was starting at outside linebacker in place of rookie Frank Zombo, who missed his second straight game with a knee injury. He had started one other game, at New England two weeks ago, and until Sunday was best known for having a great chance to end Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s interception-free streak, which is now at an NFL-record 335 passes.
In the fourth quarter of that game, Brady had a pass near the goal line batted into the air, and Walden had a clear shot at it as he dove to try to snag it. But the ball went right through his outstretched arms.
Against the Bears, he didn’t mess up his chances. With Chicago facing third-and-goal from the 4-yard line in a scoreless game late in the second quarter, Walden got a great jump off the snap count and beat left tackle Frank Omiyale around the edge to sack quarterback Jay Cutler for an 8-yard loss, forcing a field goal.
Then late in the third quarter, two plays after helping defensive end Howard Green finish up a sack of Cutler, Walden came on a delayed blitz up the middle and buried Cutler for an 11-yard loss to force another punt.
“I was reading the center, and as soon as he looked away, there was a gap that came open and I just took it and made the play,” said Walden, who has put in a lot of extra time with position coach Kevin Greene since arriving in Green Bay.
“I’ve got a great coach. I have to give a lot of credit to ‘KG.’ He pulled me to the side, he kept it real. He told me, ‘If you can’t do this, you can’t play for me.’ So I took that to heart and I’m trying to get better every day to help my team.”
Walden’s two sacks were part of the defense’s six in the game, which tied a season high. Matthews got a sack of his own late in the game as well, and it’s the attention Matthews was dealing with that Walden feels will provide chances for guys like him to make an impact.
“A lot of teams are going to double-team and triple-team him,” he said. “The back side is going to get a lot of one-on-ones, and that’s an opportunity to make plays.”
Walden’s 11 tackles, including 10 solo stops, topped the career-high nine stops he recorded at New England, and his total against Chicago could be adjusted after the defensive coaches review the film. He may even get an extra half-sack for the help on Green’s, but no one’s about to quibble over the numbers. His performance was impressive regardless.
“He stepped up big for us,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “That’s what we need. It’s not going to be every game Clay Matthews is going to do his thing. It’s not going to be every game Charles Woodson is going to do his thing. If you’re out there, we’re going to need you to step up, and thank goodness he stepped up and came up big for us. He’s playing good ball.
“He’s an athlete, now. That’s why he’s here. That’s why they brought him in, and hopefully he can build on this and keep playing well.”