GREEN BAY – Erik Walden has been the Green Bay Packers starting right outside linebacker for each of the team’s 15 games this season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll continue in that role in Sunday’s regular-season finale against Detroit or in postseason play.
Even with Frank Zombo a healthy inactive for Sunday’s homefield-clinching victory over Chicago and undrafted rookie free agent Vic So’oto being described as “very raw in some areas,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday that he’s still searching for someone to complement Clay Matthews.
“Clay is Clay. He’s in a different category. But over there on that side, we just have to do a good job of evaluating who gives us the best chance to produce week to week,” Capers said. “I think where we are right now is, with the guys we have on this team, there’s going to be competition.”
How that competition shakes out remains to be seen, but it’s hardly good news that the Packers still aren’t sure who should be playing that position with the final game of the regular season six days away. Then again, it’s somewhat consistent with how the position has been manned since the team switched to Capers’ 3-4 scheme in 2009.
In the first season of the 3-4, when Matthews was the starter on the right side, converted defensive end Aaron Kampman started opposite him for nine of the first 10 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Then-rookie seventh-round pick Brad Jones started the other seven regular-season games and the Packers’ playoff loss at Arizona.
Last season, when the Packers played 20 games including playoffs, Jones started five games, Zombo started nine, Walden started five and Robert Francois started one. Just as he did for two games in 2009, Brady Poppinga started one game in place of an injured Matthews.
While Walden has started every game this season, he was pulled in favor of Zombo at the end of the Packers’ Dec. 18 loss at Kansas City, and on Sunday the coaches sent So’oto in long before other starters were replaced with the game in hand. So’oto ended up playing 26 snaps against the Bears, while fellow undrafted rookie free agent outside linebacker Jamari Lattimore played nine in garbage time.
“We weren’t getting longer looks. This is not preseason,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy replied when asked if he wanted to get another long look at So’oto in this week’s game. “I think it’s definitely a misconception. People talk about playing this game as a preseason game. It was important for Vic to play in the game because he earned the opportunity. … And he did some good things when he played.”
It’s unlikely, however, that So’oto will have an impact anytime soon, based on Capers’ assessment of him.
“We obviously wanted to get Vic some reps and take a good look at him because we think he’s got some potential. And he did a couple good things,” Capers said. “He just still pretty raw in terms of doing it down-in and down-out. and we’re at a point now where every one of those downs is going to be important, when you get to this point in the season. So we’ll kind of take a look at it this week. We’ve got to get zeroed in. We know it’s all on the line once you start the playoffs.”
Zombo could be the wildcard, considering he’s finally healthy after missing the first five games of the season with a fractured shoulder blade, one game with a knee injury, then three more with a hamstring injury. He dressed but did not play against the New York Giants on Dec. 4, then played 23 snaps against Oakland and 10 against Kansas City before being a healthy inactive Sunday.
“Here’s the way I look at it: A year ago, Erik played a tremendous game in the last game here against Chicago (in the regular-season finale), had three sacks. He gets injured (in the NFC title game), and the next thing you know, Zombo’s in there, and he performs very well and plays very well in the Super Bowl,” Capers said. “You think about all the outside linebackers we’ve played … we’ve played a lot of right outside linebackers. And I think our production, at times, has been good.”
But evidently, not good enough.
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