The local Green Bay media got a good chuckle this week when during his Wednesday press conference, head coach Mike McCarthy responded to the question "What's different with A.J. (Hawk) this year?"
"Haircut," McCarthy deadpanned, eliciting laughs from the reporters and beat writers.
Indeed, Hawk's image is different for the first time in his seven-year NFL career after trimming his trademark long hair during the offseason––a look that dates back to his college days––for the benefit of his newly established Hawk's Locks for Kids charity.
But in all seriousness, Hawk is having perhaps the best season as a professional.
Going back to what's different about Hawk, McCarthy also mentioned a recent weight loss, which is a change for 2012.
"He's a little lighter, which is normal with NFL players sometimes, they get lighter as their careers go on," said McCarthy. "Sometimes they feel they need to be bigger when they're younger."
Without doubt, Hawk seems to be flowing to the ball better this season than arguably at any other point in his first six seasons. And it certainly seems plausible that a reduction in mass is part of the reason.
Hawk is listed as being 242 lbs. this season compared to the 247 lbs. he was listed as weighing as recently as last season in the team's media guide.
Certainly, things haven't been perfect. Hawk's limitations were apparent in the past game at St. Louis when he missed a tackle on a reverse to Rams wide receiver Chris Givens on just the second play from scrimmage.
But Hawk has also appeared to play with more fortitude and intensity that he's previously displayed as well. A fire seems to be burning on the inside, which is something few have seen in the linebacker since being the fifth overall choice of the Packers in the first round of of the 2006 Draft.
A common criticism of Hawk has been that he's failed to make the impact plays, the type that result in a turnover or significant loss of yards.
And that hasn't really changed for Hawk this season. He only has one sack and one quarterback hit to his name on the year but has also failed to tally so much as an interception, forced fumble or recovery. Statistics like these, however, don't tell the whole story with Hawk. They fail to show how well he's defended the run.
Part of the credit for his resurgence goes to the coaching staff, to inside linebackers coach Winston Moss, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and head coach Mike McCarthy who have recognized Hawk's deficiencies and have significantly reduced his playing time accordingly.
A decision has been made this season to play more dime package defense with six defensive backs on the field, which has meant Hawk has come off the field on obvious passing downs in favor of players like Casey Hayward or Davon House. With four interceptions by the rookie Hayward, the results are self evident.
The dime has been a response to the prevalence of spread offenses and high-powered passing games across the NFL, which have exploited Hawk's obvious weakness in pass coverage and his so-so pass rush abilities.
Instead, Hawk plays primarily in the base and nickel defenses, most likely on first and second downs when it's more likely the opponent is going to run the ball.
The results have been positive. To go along with his team-leading 56 tackles, Hawk already has 23 "stops" on the season after having 29 all of last year, according to ProFootballFocus.com (premium content). A stop is defined as a solo tackle that constitues an offensive failure. In other words, a failure to gain at least 40% of the yardage needed to convert on first down, 60% of the necessary yardage needed to convert on second down and all of the yardage on both third and fourth downs.
Furthermore, Hawk has a run stop percentage of 11.3 percent (meaning he records a "stop" on 11.3 percent of all running plays), which ranks 10th in the NFL among all inside linebackers (38 graded in all).
The Packers have attempted to limit Hawk's playing time in the past, most notably in 2009 when he was frequently replaced by Brandon Chillar in obvious passing situations.
But when injuries struck to Chillar and Nick Barnett in 2010, Hawk resumed a full-time role. And the coaching staff appears to have learned its lesson.
With season-ending injuries to both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith this season, Hawk continued to come off the field in the dime package at St. Louis in favor of Brad Jones despite his relative inexperience.
It's impossible to pinpoint one reason for Hawk's improved play in 2012. The coaches, the weight loss and Hawk, himself, are all commended. All they have to do now is keep it up.
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