Young inside linebackers D.J. Smith and Robert Francois have proved themselves to the point they're worthy of a promotion.
To quote head coach Mike McCarthy directly: "D.J. and Robert definitely earned an opportunity to have an increased role."
Just what that role might be is yet to be seen. But McCarthy made one thing clear at his Wednesday press conference, it's not going to be as a starter.
"A.J. Hawk's our starter, and he's back, so we'll move forward with A.J," said McCarthy. "But we feel very good about D.J. and Robert."
A.J. Hawk returned to practice on a full-time basis on Wednesday for the first time since leaving the Week 12 Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit.
Hawk practiced on a limited basis last Friday and was active for this past Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders but was one of only two players on the team who did not play.
McCarthy said on Monday that Hawk was mad at the head coach for not playing him. According to McCarthy, Hawk was supposed to play in the second half of the Raiders game on a "pitch count" but that plan was scrapped when the Packers had a 31-0 halftime lead.
Smith and Francois have taken over for Hawk and Bishop since midway through the Lions game when the incumbent starters both sustained calf injuries. And the replacements have performed admirably.
"I think what happens when you have players step up and take advantage of the opportunity, you do want to try and increase their roles," said McCarthy. "That's something you look for within the game planning whether it's a certain defense or the personnel groups that you increase."
Smith has 28 tackles on the season and has generally shown a nose for the football, making an improvement in the two weeks he's started from the Week 13 Giants game to the Week 14 Raiders game when he deftly picked of a Carson Palmer pass.
Meanwhile, Francois has 21 tackles on the year, three passes defensed, two interceptions and a forced fumble that led to a touchdown.
"Robert Francois, he's such a workmanlike individual," said McCarthy. "He's earned every opportunity, and he's really produced over and over again given the opportunity. So I'm not surprised by his production, especially for the amount of time he puts in.
"He's an extremely hard worker; he's one of those guys you may come down here at night at 8:30, and he'll be in the locker room or be in the weight room. He puts a lot of extra time in, and you've seen the benefits of that."
McCarthy said Bishop will be challenged to practice this week, meaning the odds of him playing against the Chiefs on Sunday could be in jeopardy.
The most likely scenario would have Hawk and Smith in the starting lineup as the Packers try to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win in Kansas City.
But what about the increased roles Smith and Francois have supposedly earned?
Hawk is assignment sure and a leader on defense, but he's been exposed in pass coverage especially when having to guard much quick running backs coming out of the offensive backfield.
Does an increased role mean Smith will get to rush the passer on blitzes more often or Francois will play coverage on passing downs, where their comparative strengths generally lie?
Time will tell.
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