GREEN BAY—If there’s an enduring image from the final moments of the Packers’ 2013 season, it’s rookie outside linebacker Andy Mulumba painfully limping in pursuit of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the fateful third-down scramble that set up San Francisco’s walk-off field goal in the NFC Wild Card playoff game.
Mulumba still wonders what might have been had he not been hobbling on that crucial play, an 11-yard gain on third-and-8 from the Green Bay 38-yard line with just over a minute left and the score tied.
“I would have had a chance, depending on the angle I would have taken,” Mulumba said after a recent offseason workout. “I had to adjust my angle just to try to get to him and try to push him out of bounds. At 100 percent, maybe I’d have taken a better angle and gotten him closer to that first-down mark.”
Against a player like Kaepernick, that’s still a big maybe, but the moment nonetheless serves to represent Mulumba’s first year, in the sense that the undrafted rookie was only out there because injuries on defense forced him into action. That had been the case much of the regular season.
In the playoffs, the situation was so dire that he became, almost literally, the last man standing at outside linebacker despite his own injury, pressed to deal with a sprained MCL in his knee.
Mike Neal had gone down with a knee injury on the first defensive series and didn’t return. Nick Perry wasn’t 100 percent and supposedly playing limited snaps. Clay Matthews was out after re-breaking his thumb two weeks prior. Fellow rookie Nate Palmer was inactive.
Mulumba started the playoff game and held his own, but in the third quarter, he tried to dodge a cut block from a 49ers offensive lineman on a sweep and his foot stuck in the Lambeau Field turf. He left the game, replaced briefly at outside linebacker by defensive end Datone Jones, but came back as soon as he could, heavy limp and all.
“It was tough. I was hurt. I couldn’t put any real pressure on my knee,” he said, adding that he couldn’t walk the day after the game. “I talked to (position coach) Kevin Greene, and he told me if I can handle the pain, we’re probably going to need you out there. I gave the best I could. When that third down came, my knee wouldn’t give me the extra push that I needed.”
It’s unfortunate, because by that point in the season, Mulumba was the most comfortable he’d been with his defensive assignments and with the transition to outside linebacker from defensive end at Eastern Michigan.
Thought to be headed for primarily a special teams role as one of three undrafted rookies to make the team in training camp, Mulumba was unexpectedly thrust into a part-time starting job by mid-year when injuries sidelined Matthews and Perry. His third start came in the regular-season finale in Chicago, where he recorded his first NFL sack, throwing Jay Cutler for a 2-yard loss inside the Bears’ 10-yard line in the second quarter.
“I came off a block by the tight end, and I remember my coaches telling me we can’t get blocked by tight ends,” Mulumba said. “Once you get one, you want to get more.”
How many more he might get in his second season is tough to gauge. The Packers certainly hope to be healthier at the position in 2014, with the troublesome bones of Matthews (thumb) and Perry (foot) healed. Mike Neal was re-signed, Julius Peppers was added, and more pass rushers could be coming after this week’s draft.
Mulumba, healthy now after rehabbing his knee (which didn’t require surgery), is fully aware of where he stands. While he won’t back down from the competition at his position, he’s cognizant that keeping a spot on the roster likely hinges on becoming a core player on special teams.
Mulumba got off to a solid start in that regard last season, recording three coverage tackles in the first four games.
Those contributions alone made for a remarkable story for the former youth soccer player growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His family moved to Quebec when he was 12, and he took up football shortly thereafter only due to “peer pressure,” he said.
Initially a wide receiver, then a tight end, then a fullback, Mulumba switched to defense in prep school, playing middle and outside linebacker. He arrived at Eastern Michigan with minimal knowledge of English and moved to defensive end his sophomore year.
A classic “tweener” come draft time, the 260-pound Mulumba figured he was going the free-agent route. Based on the offers his agent had, his choice was to convert to a 3-4 outside linebacker, or add at least 20 pounds to play 4-3 end. He chose the former with Green Bay, the only team to host him on a pre-draft visit.
“I didn’t know if my body could take 20 pounds to add in two months,” he said. “I didn’t want to add bad weight. The fact that I was 6-3, the defensive ends in the NFL are more 6-5, 6-6, so I would have been kind of short, and I didn’t want to take that chance.”
The Packers are glad he didn’t. They liked his raw athletic ability as a pass rusher, and his body type for special teams.
His work on special teams was reduced last season as his defensive snaps increased, so he added only two more coverage tackles after the first month. He also missed two games with an ankle injury.
As with most of his game, though, Mulumba feels he only provided a first taste. He is spending the current offseason program immersed in both the special teams and defensive playbooks, knowing he faces just as big a challenge to make the team this year as he did last year.
If nothing else, that lasting image from January proved Mulumba’s mettle. He’ll do whatever it takes.
“I want to have an impact on all four special teams,” he said. “I think I can bring physicality, be as fast and physical as I can.
“There’s a lot of competition. It’s not going to be given to me. I have to get in the playbook, learn the plays and do things right. I want to improve on everything I did last year on the field.”
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