Kevin Greene was only joking. When things get as bad as they have for the Green Bay Packers’ linebacking corps, well, what else can you do?
“It was kind of freaky. I had some shoulder pads and a helmet actually in my locker this morning,” the Packers outside linebackers coach said with a laugh Friday afternoon. “What are they trying to say?”
While the 51-year-old Greene isn’t coming out of retirement for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns – although, the Pro Football Hall of Fame nominee is the NFL’s all-time leader in sacks by a linebacker (160), and he’s in good enough shape that he just might be able to still get after the quarterback – the team’s alarming lack of depth both inside and outside is no joke.
The Packers will already be without outside linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb), inside linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring) and outside linebacker Nick Perry (foot), all of whom have been ruled out. Outside linebacker Mike Neal (bruised shoulder) is listed as questionable after not practicing all week. And top backup inside linebacker Robert Francois (ruptured Achilles’) is on season-ending injured reserve.
If Neal can’t play, it would leave only rookies Andy Mulumba, an undrafted free agent, and Nate Palmer, a sixth-round pick, at outside linebacker and starters A.J. Hawk and Jamari Lattimore and rookie seventh-round pick Sam Barrington at inside linebacker.
It’s bad enough that defensive coordinator Dom Capers – Greene’s old defensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers and head coach with the Carolina Panthers – is preparing for worst-case scenarios. And while Capers’ plans don’t include activating his former player – “Coach Dom has made sure that we have a contingency plan in place,” Greene said – it could very well include shifting from his 3-4 defense to a 4-3 scheme if disaster strikes. The Packers could also play more dime defense – two linemen, three linebackers, six defensive backs – regardless of matchups.
Neither Packers coach Mike McCarthy nor Capers wanted to talk too much about emergency plans, but Capers did say that he has used a 4-3 in the past, when he was working as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defensive coordinator under Tom Coughlin in 1999 and 2000.
“We were a 4-3 team and did all of our 3-4 stuff out of a 4-3,” Capers said Friday. “Hey, that’s the nature of our business. You just have to pick up and make sure you have enough there to carry on. I certainly like the way the guys responded last week and I feel they’ll go out and respond the same way this week.”
Obviously, the Packers’ hope is that they can get through Sunday’s game without any of their linebackers going down. Capers felt he had a good rotation for last week’s game at Baltimore – the Packers’ first without Matthews – by having Neal and Perry start and using Mulumba to spell them. Against the Ravens, Mulumba ended up playing 41 snaps on defense after playing only 31 in the previous four games combined.
“Mulumba played a lot last week and he’s done well when he’s been in there. He’s making progress,” Capers said. “These young guys, when they get in there and play and you get a chance to see them for 20, 30 plays in a game, you always feel a little bit better the next time because you’ve seen them. The first time they go in there, you just don’t know what to expect.”
That’s the case with Palmer, who was active for just the second time this season and played his first nine defensive snaps of the year against the Ravens.
“I’m just blessed to have a chance to go out here and play this game and just play football. Yeah, I’m going to be nervous, everybody in their right mind would be nervous, but all of those nerves will have to go out the window when you step between those lines,” Palmer said Friday. “Through the course of a game, I’ll probably make some mistakes, but I’m just going to have to put it behind me and keep playing and just have fun with it. Because I feel like if I’m having fun, then it’s going to be a good day.”
Mulumba, meanwhile, got off to an impressive start in training camp and parlayed it into a spot on the 53-man roster. He had been seeing spot duty in the first four games. He enters Sunday having recorded nine tackles.
“I’m really excited about it. It’s all about being ready, the next guy up,” Mulumba said. “I always approach the same. Teammates count on me. Got to prepare during week, study film, play fast on Sunday.
“It’s the nature of the game, we just have to go out there and be ready … (it’s) unfortunate that guys got hurt, but we have to be ready to do the job.”
The good news – if there is any – is that Mulumba and Palmer got Greene’s undivided attention throughout the week in practice. On Friday, as all the various positions went through their individual drills with their position coaches, there was Greene again, with only Mulumba and Palmer with him.
“(There was) a wide variety of things that I stressed. Just simple things like pad level, just operating in everything you do with your low pad level. Just simple fundamentals and technique,” Greene said. “The coach-to-player ratio obviously favors both of those guys and I’m able to just pour everything I have into those young men and they’ve taken it and they have improved.
“Their vision has improved, their technique and fundamentals are always going to be a source of improvement. They’re both fine kids and they're both going to play their heart out. Are they going to be perfect? No, but who the hell really is perfect? That’s the bottom line. We’re all going to make a mistake. The most important thing is you learn from your mistake, don’t repeat it and move on from it. That’s where they’re at. They’re good kids and they’re going to lay it all on the line for their brothers.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.