In the Packers’ 30-20 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, the team’s leading tackler was a player many fans didn’t want to see on this year’s roster: outside linebacker Erik Walden. Back in August after starting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop got injured, I suggested that Walden would make a good candidate to replace Bishop on the inside.
I remember many some not liking that idea. And without D.J. Smith now, I still think it’s a good idea for Dom Capers to get all three of his best outside linebackers on the field in passing situations. Before injury, Smith struggled downfield in coverage on running backs and tight ends and we’ve all seen A.J. Hawk’s struggles when he’s exposed in the middle of the field.
Many forget that Walden was suspended for the Week 1 game against San Francisco, but right off the bat he’s had an impact this season. Against Chicago in Week 2 he combined with Clay Matthews for a sack and pressured Jay Cutler into one of his four interceptions.
Remember this guy? He started several games down the stretch in 2010, including a 16-tackle, 3-sack performance in the season finale against the Bears. However, the 4th-year pro didn’t play very well in 2011, resulting in Ted Thompson drafting former USC defensive end Nick Perry to start at left outside linebacker.
With Perry battling a season-long wrist injury the two were already splitting time but after the rookie’s knee injury against Houston, Walden is the full-time starter and he’s continued to play like he did at the end of the ’10 season.
Capers said of Walden after Sunday’s game: “Guys normally rise up to what your expectations are of them.”
After the horrid pass defense we saw last season, this year’s defense has obviously been much better. Maybe it’s that confidence the coaches have had in guys like Walden, or maybe it’s the pressure of competition after Thompson used his first six picks on defense.
We all know that last season’s pass defense was the worst of all-time in terms of yards allowed, but they were also ranked 30th in sack percentage and punts forced. The outside linebackers combined for 12 of the team’s 29 sacks; six of those coming from Matthews.
Fast forward to this year, the defense already has 24 sacks. With the improved play of Walden, along with the infusion of youth in guys like Perry and defensive ends Jerrel Worthy and Mike Neal, this sack total should continue at this pace.