Out Of Nowhere Walden Impresses
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Outside linebacker Erik Walden picked up two unexpected things Wednesday: The NFC Defensive Player of the Week award, and another sack from his already impressive performance against the Chicago Bears last Sunday.
Now, he’s looking to pick up where he left off last Sunday – 16 tackles, three sacks – and play a key role in the Packers’ NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
"He did it all,” veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said of Walden’s performance against the Bears. “I think he impressed a lot of people around here. When you play at that high of a level, now we expect you to do it all the time. So we look for big things from him coming into these playoffs.”
Against the Bears, the post-game stat book credited Walden with 11 tackles and two sacks on Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler, but when the NFL’s official statistics keeper, Elias Sports Bureau, reviewed the film of the game, it determined that a sack incorrectly credited to defensive end Howard Green should have gone to Walden, giving him a Clay Matthews-like three sacks on the day. (The Packers coaches’ film study also gave Walden five additional tackles that weren’t originally credited to him.)
“It’s just nice to have someone in there to make some plays and take a little heat off me,” Matthews said. “I told him he’s doing a fantastic job. He’s been working his butt off since he got here. It’s not easy to come in here halfway through the year. Now he’s starting for a playoff team and making sacks, making plays. More power to him.”
With previous starter Frank Zombo – another out-of-nowhere success story at the outside linebacker position – not practicing Wednesday and questionable with a knee injury he suffered Dec. 12 at Detroit, Walden could play a key role in Sunday’s game against quarterback Michael Vick and the Eagles. Having been used by defensive coordinator Dom Capers to spy on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler – one of Walden’s sacks came when he chased Cutler on a delayed blitz after recognizing the play – Walden could be used similarly against Vick.
“That’s the objective. You have to take your hat off to a guy like Vick, because you never know where he might wind up,” Walden said. “He may roll out to his left on one play, and then he scrambles and breaks out to his right on the next play. It’s going to be a difficult task, but I know we’re going to be prepared to play.”
For his part, Walden has been preparing for his opportunity ever since the Packers signed him on Oct. 27 after previous right outside linebackers Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga joined the throngs of players on injured reserve. Four days after signing, Walden played in the nickel defense as an outside pass-rusher against the New York Jets, helping the Packers to a 9-0 shutout victory.
Considering how complex the Packers’ 3-4 defense is, coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday it’s a testament to Walden, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene and defensive coordinator Dom Capers for getting up to speed so quickly.
“If you put 150 defenses in in training camp, they’re starting from scratch,” Capers said of players like Walden and fellow linebacker Diyral Briggs, who was claimed off waivers one day before Walden was signed. “So you have to decide how much they can do and how much they can do effectively. I promise you (Walden) has more (defenses) than he had that Jets game when we stuck him in there when we got him that week.
“He’s doing a nice job. Erik’s a smart guy. He’s one of those guys who’s taken advantage of his opportunity in there.”
It hasn’t been easy. Walden, whom the Miami Dolphins cut at the end of training camp this year, re-signed on Sept. 14 and then cut again on Sept. 28, had been out of football and spending time with his son in Murfreesboro, Tenn., when Packers assistant director of pro personnel Eliot Wolf called him.
"He said, 'Look, this is the situation, it's an incredible opportunity,' so my eyes lit up," said Walden, who originally entered the league as a sixth-round pick out of Middle Tennessee State by the Dallas Cowboys in 2008 and bounced around after that, spending nine games with the Kansas City Chiefs and six with the Dolphins that year. “I'm just trying to cash in and contribute, kind of make a name for myself. But at the same time, the bigger picture is helping us get to where we want to be, get these wins and get this train rolling."
After signing with the Packers, Walden did his best to pick up Capers’ defense but admitted Wednesday that he wondered if he’d ever get it figured out.
“It took me about a month to actually get all the calls and be comfortable with it,” Walden admitted. “Because when I first got here, I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to learn this defense,’ unless I got an offseason (with the team). But I kept studying, and I learned it.
“It’s a great scheme. It makes it a whole lot easier when you’ve got coaches who played in the league for years. The coaches explaining and breaking everything down makes it easier for us to go out and make plays.”
Now, the Packers hope for more.
“I’ve always been confident in myself. It was just a matter getting out there and getting an opportunity,” Walden said. “It’s just being blessed with a little luck and when you get that opportunity, you make the most of it.”