But it’s a job that’s vitally important to the success of the Green Bay Packers’ defense, and linebacker A.J. Hawk does it in the same understated fashion that matches his personality.
As one of two inside linebackers in coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, Hawk is the defensive signal caller, a task that keeps his mind processing information all the way from the end of one play to the beginning of the next.
Simply stated, the sequence goes something like this …
Once a play ends and Capers, from his perch in the coaches’ box, sees the personnel group the offense has on the field for the next snap, he delivers over his headset the defensive play call to assistant head coach Winston Moss on the sidelines. Moss then radios the call in to Hawk, who is the one player on the defense with the speaker in his helmet to receive communication.
Hawk then delivers the call in the huddle and as the players disperse to their positions, he must see and react to the offensive formation. From there, he and fellow inside linebacker Desmond Bishop call out any adjustments the defensive linemen need to be aware of as to their alignment or responsibilities, and the communication must trickle back to the secondary so the defensive backs can make appropriate adjustments as well.
Capers talks all the time about how invaluable clear communication is amongst his defenders on any given play, and the phrase “getting on the same page” isn’t just a cliché but a necessity. Gap responsibilities, blitz lanes, and coverage assignments all must be squared away before the snap.
Players at all levels of the defense have certain communication responsibilities, but it all starts with Hawk, and his sure, steady demeanor couldn’t be more suited to what can be a chaotic, taxing job.
“A.J. is such a consistent guy,” Capers said. “He studies. I think he’s a pro. The guys on the team have confidence in him in terms of making the calls. I think he’s assertive and decisive at doing that.
“The assertiveness, the decisiveness of the signal caller, the adjustments that are made up front -- they affect the confidence of the whole team I think. He’s done a really, really good job with it.”
It’s not even supposed to be Hawk’s job, of course. It’s normally Nick Barnett’s, but since Barnett was lost for the season to a wrist injury in Week 4, Hawk has taken over as the signal caller, just like he did two years ago when Barnett missed the second half of the season with a knee injury.
Even though the Packers were running a different defense in ’08, the experience helped Hawk, just as it did in training camp each of the last two summers as Barnett took significant periods of time off to recuperate from his knee problems.
Barnett certainly performed the job with aplomb as well. But having a player to fill in like Hawk who Moss describes as very “natural” in that leadership role has been one factor that has helped the defense remain competitive and reliable while navigating through a seemingly endless injury list this first half of the season – which culminated last Sunday vs. the New York Jets in the Packers’ first road shutout in 19 years.
“I’ve done it in the past a little bit here, and now doing it full-time, I feel completely confident and comfortable doing it,” Hawk said. “I like being the first guy to get the call through the headset so I’m already thinking in my mind what the defense is and what we’re going to do.”
Hawk’s intelligence and ability to anticipate serve him well as he responds to all the cues on the fly. But perhaps his most valuable trait is his poise, because if the offense shifts the formation or sends someone in motion with the play clock winding down, it opens the possibility that the defense will be forced to scramble frantically at the last second.
“It definitely can get that way if you let it, and that’s one of the biggest tests,” Hawk said. “That’s one of the things I take pride in is trying not to ever freak out or get frantic like that. It kind of runs from the top down. Our coaches do a great job of not being like that and not overreacting, so I don’t want the defense to see me all freaking out getting the call in like we’re behind.
“I just make sure to stay calm and it keeps everybody else calm when you do that.”
Moss appreciates how much easier said than done that actually is in the heat of battle. A former linebacker himself in his playing days, Moss said there’s a lot for the leader in the huddle to cater to – the anxiety on the part of the defensive linemen to want to get lined up right away, or the suggestion of another call by someone in the secondary, for example.
“It can be a very chaotic situation,” said Moss, who also is Hawk’s position coach. “I’ve been in that situation as a signal caller. You’ve got a lot of feedback going on in that huddle, and if you don’t have a guy that has a lot of poise and a lot of command, you can get overrun in that huddle. They can kind of run through you. But they respect A.J. He has a very calm effect in that huddle to where nobody panics.”
That’s especially helpful when the offense is in hurry-up mode or, as inevitably happens at least a few times per game, the offense is late getting organized and Hawk can’t get a call from Moss on the sidelines. The helmet speaker is shut off with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock, so if the offense makes a late personnel substitution and is still huddling after that point, it’s Hawk’s call to make.
Hawk is so consistent in his approach that sometimes the other players don’t even know whether the call he’s communicating is from Capers and Moss, or if he’s making his own decisions. That helps to keep everything business as usual no matter the circumstances
“He has kidded me that he’s wanted to make certain calls on his own,” Moss said with a rather large grin, adding that he doesn’t let Hawk get too “exotic” when he’s on his own. “But he does a very good job of really being detailed and in tune with situations. We have contingencies in place to where he has a call to go to, but he’s also worked outside the framework and he’s been able to put us in very good defenses regardless. We give him a lot of responsibility with that.”
As for the adjustments post-huddle but pre-snap, Hawk credits his mates at inside linebacker, Bishop and Brandon Chillar, for help with the smooth communication. This is Hawk’s fourth year playing with Bishop (a 2007 draft pick) and third with Chillar (a 2008 free agent), and all of them have played multiple linebacker positions within the defense, so everyone’s knowledge of the scheme as a whole has aided the transition in Barnett’s absence.
Hawk’s success with the signal calling has made for an interesting evolution to his season. It started with him not playing any defensive snaps from scrimmage in the opener at Philadelphia, as Capers went with his nickel package the entire game. That prompted some to wonder if Hawk was simply expendable and might be traded to acquire help at another position.
But since then, with Chillar in and out of the lineup with shoulder trouble and Barnett going down for the season, Hawk has not only become an every-down defender for the first time since 2008, but he’s leading the team in total (75) and solo (53) tackles and has tied his career high with two interceptions.
Those are the parts of Hawk’s game everyone sees from the stands and on TV. But it’s the rest of his football acumen that’s made him a major factor for the Packers’ defense in 2010.
“He’s been put in situations every game where he has to respond with a lot of leadership and a lot of smarts to be able to get us lined up, and he’s done a very good job with that,” Moss said.
“To respond to all that and really come on and play at a high level with a lot of production, fulfilling all the roles that he has, embracing all three downs, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Additional coverage – Nov. 5