When Clay Matthews went down with a hamstring injury midway through the Green Bay Packers loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Packers pass rush completely disappeared.
Two weeks later, Matthews left the game early against the Detroit Lions because of a broken thumb. Many feared the Green Bay pass rush would walk to the locker room along with the Packer all-pro outside linebacker.
Instead, Nick Perry and Mike Neal had breakout games and terrorized Matthew Stafford in a Packers 22-9 win. The two outside linebackers combined for three sacks, a forced fumble, and multiple quarterback pressures. They helped lead the team to five sacks on the day and kept Stafford uncomfortable in the pocket.
The following week against the Baltimore Ravens, Perry was en route to another solid performance. He sacked Joe Flacco rushing from the quarterback’s blindside and stripped the ball to force a fumble that set up a Packers field goal just before the half. Unfortunately, just as Perry seemed to be emerging as the Packers’ top pass rusher in Matthews’ absence, the second-year linebacker broke his foot in the contest and miss at least the next two games.
The Packers have been hit with the injury bug at outside linebacker. The position most responsible for generating quarterback pressure in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense.
With both Perry and Matthews inactive, Green Bay has played the last two weeks with two healthy rookie outside linebackers, Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer, and an injured Mike Neal (shoulder). The three players have combined for zero sacks the past three weeks and only Neal has had the occasional quarterback pressure.
Despite all this, the Packers have still been able to generate consistent quarterback pressure the past few weeks. Even without their star pass rusher and his top reserve, Green Bay is still tied for eighth in the league in sacks with 23. This is even more impressive when you consider that most of the teams ahead of them in the rankings have played one more game this season.
So how have they done it?
The Packers have had to get creative when rushing the passer. Their outside linebackers alone have not wreaked havoc in the pocket since Matthews and Perry have been out of the lineup. To compensate for this Coach Capers has gotten creative with his blitz packages. Players at other positions have stepped up. Fourteen of the Packers’ 23 sacks have come with Matthews out of the lineup.
In the Packers first full game without Matthews, inside linebacker A.J. Hawk recorded a career-high three sacks against Baltimore. All three came from blitzing down the middle of the Ravens’ shaky interior offensive line.
With Brad Jones tallying one sack and Jamari Lattimore recording two, the Packers inside linebackers have accounted for six sacks since the bye week. This is more then the group totaled all of last season. Capers has utilized the delay inside linebacker blitz effectively over the past few weeks. A trick in his arsenal he will continue to use throughout the season.
The Packers defensive backs have also gotten in on the act as Capers has shown he’s not afraid to send everything but the kitchen sink at the quarterback.
Safety M.D. Jennings recorded a sack earlier in the season on a blitz, and corners, Micah Hyde, Davon House, and Tramon Williams, have four combined sacks blitzing out of the slot in the Packers defensive sub packages.
To put it bluntly, the Packers pass rush has been a collective effort so far this season. They’re not seeing the monster numbers like Matthews’ 13 sacks from last season, but the team’s 23 sacks this season put them well on track to matching or even topping their 47-sack mark from last season.
The most pleasant surprise in the Packers pass rush this season has been second-year defensive lineman, Mike Daniels. Daniels had a big day against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday night. He recorded two sacks in the game and now leads the team with four sacks this season. The undersized defensive lineman is hard-nosed and has a good burst off the line. He’s brought some much-needed juice to the Packers interior defensive line on passing downs.
Hopefully, as the season progresses, players, like Datone Jones and Mike Neal, will pick it up and provide a little more pressure on the quarterback. Because until Matthews and Perry can return to the field, the Packers pass rush will need to remain a collective effort.