FOX Sports Exclusive
Hawk, Packers need to get after Brees
Green Bay's "psycho" pass-rush package is proving so effective for outside linebacker Clay Matthews that it's easy to forget he isn't the only inmate helping to run the asylum.
Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk also is off to a red-hot start in his seventh NFL season. Whereas Matthews leads the NFL in sacks with six, Hawk has compiled a team-high 33 tackles as the team's best run-stuffer.
Both of their roles in Green Bay's defense are different, but the common goal for Hawk and Matthews on Sunday remains the same: Stopping quarterback Drew Brees in Sunday's home game against New Orleans (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX).
“Drew is obviously one of the elite quarterbacks in the league," Hawk told FOXSports.com earlier this week in a telephone interview. "He just seems to do such a good job of knowing exactly where his receivers are going to be. He also usually has a pretty good idea where we're going to be as a defense as well. He finds a way to get rid of the ball so quickly that he can definitely cause frustration for a defense.”
Brees himself has experienced uncharacteristic frustration amid the Saints' 0-3 start. With a 54.7 completion percentage and five interceptions, Brees has proven far less productive than during his record-breaking 2011 campaign.
Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer acknowledges that Brees is pushing but says the bigger problem is with his supporting cast, especially with New Orleans struggling to convert third downs.
"Drew will have the kind of game we're accustomed to when everyone else around him steps up," Kromer said after Thursday's practice. "I feel like it is coming."
To prevent that from happening, the Packers must continue their improved defensive performance from 2011. Kromer noted that Green Bay has diminished use of its nickel package in favor of a four-linebacker look. Hawk is the veteran of a unit that includes Matthews (fourth season), D.J. Smith (second) and Nick Perry (rookie).
Matthews is being deployed in more diverse ways than last season when he rushed almost exclusively from the left outside linebacker spot that Perry now occupies. When not challenging left tackles as a right outside linebacker, Matthews is being shifted inside in hopes of creating mismatches against guards.
"It definitely helps when you can be deceptive and the offense doesn't really know where Clay is rushing from," Hawk said. "We've also got a lot of other guys moving and bouncing around trying to create some confusion. If you can get one-tenth of a second of confusion among their offensive linemen, a guy can squeeze through the lane and get pressure.
"That's the name of the game — pressure."
Hawk has felt pressure since entering the NFL because of his lofty draft status as the No. 5 overall selection in 2006. While critics will say he never lived up to expectations, Hawk is on pace to lead Green Bay in tackles for the fourth time in his career. Hawk also has served as a mentor to younger linebackers such as Smith, who has replaced the injured Desmond Bishop in the starting lineup.
“It's crazy to think I'm in my seventh year in the league," said Hawk, 28. "I feel like a little kid at 21 or 22. Mentally, I'm a lot better than I've ever been. And I just feel overall that I can actually still get a ton better. I'm excited with what the future is going to bring.”
Even if that future includes Brees on Sunday.