With Matthews out, Packers look to Neal
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--It’s clear that the Green Bay Packers are going to be without linebacker Clay Matthews for awhile, but for the first time they won’t have to look in every nook and cranny of their defense to find some pass rush.
Make no bones about it, they can’t replace the all-around excellence of their $66 million defensive centerpiece, who broke his thumb Sunday against the Detroit Lions. But unlike previous times when Matthews has been out, they have the personnel to produce something more than a token rush against their upcoming opponents.
“Clay’s one of those guys who’s going to make two or three plays a game,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You’ve seen every game this year. I told him he’s going to have to stop sacking the quarterback because the last two weeks, he’s injured himself sacking the quarterback.
“But the one encouraging thing to me is, I think Mike Neal has made really good strides. I think you saw him play his best game yesterday. I think you saw Nick Perry play his best game yesterday.”
The two of them combined for three of the Packers’ five sacks and nine of their 44 solo tackles in their 22-9 victory over the Lions at Lambeau Field. The two had to pick up the slack in the fourth quarter Sunday and for the entire second half against Cincinnati two weeks ago after Matthews pulled his hamstring.
Matthews didn’t miss a start despite the hamstring pull, but he will miss time because of the broken thumb. An NFL source said the early diagnosis was that surgery would be necessary to stabilize the thumb, but the Packers were seeking multiple opinions on what would be the best course of action.
Though there were reports Matthews would be out a month, it still wasn’t clear Monday night exactly what the time frame for his return would be. It generally takes four to six weeks for a bone to heal, but there are many factors involved that affect the prognosis.
The only thing coach Mike McCarthy would say was that it didn’t appear to be a season-ending injury.
“I think anytime a player has an injury, particularly to the thumb and wrist area, there’s so many small bones in there, it’s always different,” McCarthy said Monday. “And you’re dealing with the small ligaments. You have to get all the information, and it’s important for the specialists to look at that and weigh in on every individual particular injury
“And this is exactly what’s going on with Clay’s case. So, that’s the first step to find out exactly the extent of the injury and what needs to be done because they’re all a little different.”
Matthews broke the thumb on the final play of the third quarter while sacking Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. It’s believed he injured his hamstring two weeks prior while tackling Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis behind the line of scrimmage and not on his sack of quarterback Andy Dalton as Capers referenced.
Whatever the case, Matthews appears to be headed for a second straight year with multiple games missed. Last year, he sat out four games with a hamstring injury to the same leg he hurt this season.
In the four he was out, the Packers went 3-1 but managed just seven sacks, including two in the final three games. Relying on outside linebackers Erik Walden, Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo, Capers blitzed when he could and thanked his lucky stars he got to play Detroit twice and Minnesota once.
Still, the Packers finished with 47 sacks, tied for the most in Capers’ four years as defensive coordinator.
At this time a year ago, the Packers had 14 sacks, but seven of them came from Matthews and only a half sack came from the rest of the outside linebackers. This year, sack production has been solid with the Packers piling up nine sacks in their last two games and 12 for the season, only three of which have come from Matthews.
Nine players have sacks, and Capers was especially happy to see two from Perry and one from Neal.
“Our Super Bowl year, the number of guys that had to step in and perform, it’s just expected that everybody’s going to count on you to do your job,” Capers said. “Not knowing the status and what’s going to go on there, we need for Mike Neal and Nick Perry to be ready to play next week the way they played this week.
“Because they played their best football this week.”
The transition and emergence of Neal from defensive lineman to outside linebacker culminated in Neal replacing Perry on the left side against the Lions. Neal had been playing better each week and Perry was coming off a poor game against the Bengals.
Capers, however, didn’t completely banish Perry, a 2012 first-round draft pick, on the bench and on several plays used a dime package with Neal and Perry on the outside and Matthews as a rover in the middle. Perry responded with five solo tackles and two sacks and looked less robotic as a pass rusher.
He didn’t limit his moves to just bull rushes.
“I think that’s Nick’s forte because of his strength and his power, but he made a couple good moves,” Capers said. “He’s got a little move where he’ll come as if he’s going to power and he slips and dips his shoulder.
“The one sack he had—the first sack—the tackle held him. If you watch that, he jerked him and he kind of powered through the thing to make the sack.”
The threat of Matthews has taken a lot of attention away from the other pass rushers, so to say they’re going to perform in Baltimore on Sunday the way they did against the Lions is no given. In addition, Capers will have to get some work out of rookie free agent Andy Mulumba, who is physically imposing but as green as the turf the Packers play on.
The loss of inside linebacker Brad Jones, who has two sacks blitzing up the middle, would be felt if he can’t play this week because of a hamstring pull he suffered against the Lions. Any other injuries at linebacker would limit Capers’ choices.
When Matthews comes back, be it with a splint, cast or soft club on his hand, Capers will have to figure out whether he can be effective rushing over and over again from an outside linebacker position. If Neal and Perry play well, he could use more of the three outside-linebacker look with Matthews in the middle with the intention of keeping Matthews from having to use his hands so much.
“We like to move Clay around,” Capers said. “We’ve said from the beginning with Mike Neal on the outside it give your defense so much more flexibility because if we want to have Nick and Mike outside, those are two big physical guys rushing.”
For now, Capers will just hope Matthews is back as quickly as possible.