Stopgap pass rushers do the job for Packers
GREEN BAY—It's three games and counting that Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews has been out of action.
It could easily be three more before he returns from a broken thumb.
It would be logical to think the Packers desperately need Matthews' pass-rushing ability to build on their 5-2 record, but the truth is that despite his absence they are producing sacks at a rate that would top the highest season total in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' previous four years.
Matthews, the team's sack leader each of his four seasons, has contributed just three sacks this season, yet the Packers rank fifth in the NFL in sacks per pass play and tied for eighth overall with 23. They have 16 sacks in their last four games, only one of which came from their Pro Bowl linebacker.
And it isn't just Matthews they're missing.
Linebacker Nick Perry, who lost his starting job to Mike Neal four games into the season and then went on a three-sack tear, broke his foot against Baltimore and has missed two games. Inside linebacker Brad Jones has missed two games with a hamstring pull and Neal has been dealing with a bum shoulder since the Ravens game.
Instead of the defense falling apart, however, Capers has mixed and matched probably the most athletic and deepest roster he has had during his tenure here and manufactured sacks from every source possible.
A total of 12 players have sacks and by position they break down this way: defensive linemen, five; outside linebackers, seven; inside linebackers, six; and defensive backs, five. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels leads the team with four, and Matthews, Perry and A.J. Hawk are second with three apiece.
“If you go back and look over the last five years, the sacks get distributed over a lot of different people because we bring a lot of different people from a lot of different looks,” Capers said. “That's one of the advantages of the 3-4 as opposed to having four down guys and those four down guys are the primary rushers.”
The three sacks against Minnesota on Sunday night could be attributed to facing a bad quarterback, but 16 of the 23 sacks this season have come against San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Baltimore's Joe Flacco, all of whom are established quarterbacks.
A huge factor in the increase in production from players not named Matthews is the maturation and improved health of the people picking up the slack.
Daniels, who played with a bad shoulder all through his rookie season last year, is healthy and has found his niche as an inside rusher in the sub packages. Neal, who was moved to outside linebacker in the offseason after three injury-filled years on the defensive line, hasn't missed a game and has blossomed into a pass-rush threat.
Inside, A.J. Hawk has responded to the loss of Matthews with a fury and chalked up all three of his sacks this season against the Ravens. Third-year pro Jamari Lattimore has matured into a physical presence in the middle and has sacks in each of the last two games.
Finally, rookie cornerback Micah Hyde has provided a Charles Woodson-type presence from the slot position in the nickel defense, teaming with veteran Tramon Williams for three sacks.
“We have tried to adapt,” Capers said. “We'll bring different combinations of people. We might drop a lineman out and bring in a couple of backers from the same side. That's part of the deception of what we try to do.”
Capers hasn't gone hog wild with his blitzes, but he has gotten creative given all the options available to him. He has longed for a pass rusher opposite Matthews so that he can deceive teams into thinking one is going to blitz when it's actually the other.
Neal has proved to be twice the rusher either Erik Walden or Dezman Moses was last year and was just starting to fill that opposite role when Matthews went down. Matthews' injury allowed Perry to move to the right side, where he appeared much more comfortable rushing the passer and Capers had his two-sided threat back.
When Perry got hurt, Neal lost a complement and when he banged up his shoulder, rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer, two athletic but raw talents filled in, stepped in and added what they could. Mulumba and Palmer don't have any sacks, but Capers figures they have gained invaluable experience and could be factors later in the season.
The most disappointing part of the first seven games is the lack of production from rookie defensive end Datone Jones, who was drafted because of his pass rush potential. So far, he has no sacks and just six tackles.
In going after opposing quarterbacks, Capers has chosen to mix up his blitzes rather than bring waves of rushers. Of the 23 sacks, eight have come with just four rushers and one with just three. Two sacks came on six-man rushes, but all the rest came when he rushed five.
It hasn't been the number that is important but rather the variety.
“You adapt it based on who is out there, maybe change up who is setting the thing up and who should be free,” Capers said. “You have your packages and we work on them all through training camp, but sometimes you work on them and they don't show up until three, four games into the season.
“But you have to have enough stuff from week to week. You can't just repeat what you're doing.”
Capers has been criticized for not blitzing enough, blitzing too much and not coming up with enough creative blitzes. But he has always been only as successful as the athletes he has at his disposal and it appears now that he has more than ever before.
At some point Capers will get Matthews, Perry and Jones back and be able to field a full complement of pass rushers. The options will be vast, and he is eager to use them all.
“I look forward to the time when we get all of our troops together at the same time,” he said. “I think what we're going through now is these guys are gaining experience. We'll be able to use that experience over the second half of the season.”