NEW ORLEANS––Part of the reason the Green Bay Packers had a second consecutive exit in the divisional round of the playoffs can be found in the team that eliminated them this past season.
The San Francisco 49ers boast one the best group of linebackers in the entire league, one key to their defense's success. Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith were all named first-team All-Pro. If that wasn't enough, Ahmad Brooks was named to the second-team.
So what makes them so good?
"All of us are guys that want to compete, guys who want to make the next big play," said Bowman. "On some defenses, you have one or two playmakers, one or two guys who you know are trying to make a play."
If the latter sounds somehow familiar, it should. Beyond Clay Matthews, the Packers had very little in terms of playmakers at the linebacker position.
There's little doubt that Matthews is good in his own right. His 13 sacks were among the league leaders in 2012, and he was named second-team All-Pro just like Brooks.
Matthews is the cornerstone the Packers can build their defense around. But he can't do it alone. At least not if the Packers hope to get back to where the 49ers currently are, which is competing for the Super Bowl.
Smith, who had 19.5 sacks this season for the 49ers, echoed Bowman's sentiments about the playmaking aspect being the common thread among the 49ers' elite four linebackers.
"It's kind of like a friendly competition. Everyone wants to be good. Everyone wants to make a play," said Smith. "When that happens, it brings out the best in you. So every game, one of us is going to make a big play."
For the sake of comparison, Packers linebackers had a collective 21.0 sacks among their four primary starters at linebacker––Matthews, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Erik Walden––to go along with two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The 49ers, meanwhile, had 28.5 sacks, five interceptions and eight forced fumbles among their fab four.
There's no doubt that injuries to Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith and Nick Perry hampered the Packers defense this season and perhaps prevented it from being better than it could be. But the rest of the Packers linebackers, in a word, underachieved.
The knock on Hawk has always been that he's not a playmaker. In seven professional seasons, Hawk has 13.5 sacks, an average of less than two per year. His eight interceptions are an average of just over one per year.
With a contract that pays in the neighborhood of $5 million in each of the next three seasons, the Packers have to decide how long they can hold onto a player who's production is as average as average can be.
Jones may have exceeded expectations as the third-string inside linebacker behind Bishop and Smith, but he didn't prove he's an unquestioned starter upon their return either.
Opposite Matthews, Walden was rated as the lowest-ranking 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL for a second consecutive season by ProFootballFocus.com. He'll be a free agent in the offseason.
The attention now turns to how the Packers can improve that linebacker group in 2013 and beyond. And unfortunately for Green Bay, there's no simple so solution, easy answer or magic elixir that's going to make the linebackers better.
According to 49ers linebackers coach Jim Leavitt, it's important for the linebackers to be surrounded by good players on the defensive line and in the secondary. There's also the matter of good coaching and a front office that procures the talent.
"I believe (49ers general manager) Trent Baalke and his group did an outstanding job," said Leavitt. "That's a lot of work. And for them to make the decisions they made, was extraordinary."
That's where Packers G.M. Ted Thompson comes into the picture. The possibility exists that he could sit tight and hope that injured players like Bishop, Smith and their 2012 first-round draft choice raise the bar.
The Packers are sure to have high hopes for a player like Perry, but as of yet, the jury is still out. Even rookies like Dezman Moses and Terrell Manning could emerge.
But if the in-house candidates aren't viable options, the Packers will have to look from outside the organization. Free agency is an unlikely source for an influx of new talent, but the NFL Draft could be.
Whatever road the Packers take, they'll need some players like the 49ers who have a quality that's lacking in Green Bay.
"I enjoy these guys, because the passion they have for the game is special," said Leavitt. "It's in them. You can feel the energy through them. You can see that in their play. They have embraced this game so much, and they're just so passionate about it."
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