A Close Look at the Packers Linebackers: How Will They Handle the Injuries?
By Dan Dahlke
Clay Matthews. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph
The Green Bay Packers defense had their best game of the season in the 22-9 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. However, the Packers suffered a number of key injuries in the game that could really impact their season, specifically at the linebacker position.
Not only does the possibility exist that the Packers will be without their best defensive player, Clay Matthews, for a month or longer, but Green Bay may also be without starting inside linebacker Brad Jones for some time. They also placed his top backup Robert Francois on injured reserve earlier today.
After Sunday, stating the Packers will be thin at the linebacker position feels like a bit of an understatement. Matthews is the team’s top pass rusher and Jones is solid starter for them on the inside. Both Jones and Matthews recorded a sack against Detroit before leaving the game, and they both play very well against the run.
Brad Jones tackles BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Jones is also the team’s best linebacker in coverage, and Francois is one of the top special teams players on the roster, not to mention a pretty good reserve inside linebacker.
Matthews’ potential loss could prove to be the most devastating of the three. Early reports indicate the Packers star linebacker will probably have surgery to repair his thumb and will be out for at least a month, possibly longer. If the injury is bad enough, Matthews could miss the rest of the season.
This is not good news, especially for a defense that seems to be just getting it together. The Packers five sacks on Sunday nearly doubled the Lions total allowed in the first four weeks of the season. The Green Bay front seven completely dominated the Detroit offensive line and got pressure on Matthew Stafford all day.
The encouraging news is the Packers continued getting pressure on the quarterback after Matthews left the game. This did not happen when Matthews left the Cincinnati game early with a hamstring strain.
In fact, both Mike Neal and Nick Perry had breakout games against Detroit, and this couldn’t come at a better time when the team may have potentially lost their hands-down best outside linebacker for some time.
Mike Neal. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Neal got the start over Perry on the left side to begin the game. Apparently, this was because of Perry’s poor performance against Cincinnati and Neal’s ascension at the position.
Still, neither Neal nor Perry had recorded a sack all season until Sunday. Many of us wondered if the Packers could get pressure at all if Matthews were to miss some time.
At 275 pounds, Neal looked like a human wrecking ball on the field. He showed a surprising quickness and burst for such a big player. He got good push at the line and overpowered the Detroit linemen.
The converted defensive end finished the day with one sack, six tackles, and one tackle for loss. But what won’t show up on the stat sheet was Neal’s ability to close the pocket and enable other players to get to the quarterback. You could make a case Neal was the Packers’ defensive player of the game. He was that good on Sunday.
Early on in the game, Perry saw a limited number of snaps and rotated in at outside linebacker to give Matthews and Neal a rest. Perry played well against the run, tallying five tackles and two for a loss.
Nick Perry knocks the football away from Matthew Stafford. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Perry flashed some pass rush ability in the second half. He recorded two sacks and forced a fumble coming off the right side in place of Matthews. This seems to be the more natural side for Perry to rush from. He played right end in college, so this would make sense.
Perry showcased a dangerous swim move, which was a pleasant departure from his typical bull rush. Perry has always had the power to play the position, but he’s needed to show a little more explosion and finesse as a pass rusher up to this point. Sunday, he did just that, and finally showed why Green Bay took him in the first round in 2012.
If Matthews does miss a considerable amount of time, I’d expect Perry to start at right outside linebacker with Neal playing on the strong side. Neal and Perry will be mostly responsible for getting pressure on the quarterback in Matthew’s absence. Reserve rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer may rotate in as well. However, Mulumba hasn’t shown much in his few snaps this season, and Palmer has yet to make the 46-man game day roster.
The Packers will also need to get more pass rush production from defensive linemen Mike Daniels and first-round pick Datone Jones if they expect to generate consistent quarterback pressure without Matthews in the lineup.
Jamari Lattimore. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Francois has already been ruled out for the rest of the season, but it’s undetermined at this point how much time Brad Jones could miss this season. It may only be week. It may be a few. It’s hard to tell with hamstring injuries. Matthews only needed a week to recover. Hayward is going on sixth week in a row of being inactive.
It’s still unclear where Jones’ injury falls on this spectrum.
Considering he’d miss some time, the Packers would start third-year player Jamari Lattimore, and have seventh-round rookie Sam Barrington as their lone reserve at the position.
I don’t need to point out to you the inexperience between these two players. Lattimore played okay filling in for Francois on Sunday, but I’m wondering if Green Bay feels comfortable enough with him starting this week against Baltimore.
Although there may not be a better option than Lattimore at this point, I’m still surprised the Packers didn’t bring in an additional linebacker on the roster with Francois on IR. With only Barrington backing up Hawk and Lattimore, the Packers are playing a dangerous game if injury would strike the position again this week.
The only certainty at inside linebacker at this point is A.J. Hawk. Hawk was a man on a mission Sunday. He made plays all over the field and looked like a lighter and more invigorated linebacker than in recent years.
A.J. Hawk tackles Reggie Bush. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Hawk plays hard and you always have to admire that about the guy. He played a key role in holding Reggie Bush to only 44 yards on the ground on 13 carries, and he made a handful of open field tackles that prevented Detroit receivers from gaining first downs.
Hawk is off to a really good start this season, and he’ll continue to be a consistent presence in the middle of the Packers defense. With all the injuries and changes at linebacker currently happening, Hawk may be the one constant the Packers can depend upon.
Hopefully, come Sunday Neal, Perry, and Lattimore will take their game to the next level and become dependable players on the field as well.
Because without Matthews, the Packers will need a collective effort to defeat the defending Super Bowl Champions in Baltimore.