11

October

Green Bay Defense Relying On Young Depth

Nate Palmer Green Bay Packers

Nate Palmer is one of the young guys who may be called upon to step in and help.

The Green Bay Packers will be without two of their defensive starters for at least this week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens.  Outside linebacker Clay Matthews reportedly had successful surgery on his broken thumb and will be out at least a month, probably longer.  Inside linebacker Brad Jones suffered a hamstring injury and was ruled out of this week’s game on Wednesday.

Losing Matthews is a huge blow to the Packers and their pass rush.  Replacing him is impossible and I need not break down the many reasons why.  He is the team’s best defensive player and the heartbeat of that side of the ball.

In Jones, the Packers are losing yet another solid contributor to their defense.  Jones stepped last season amidst a few injuries and has maintained his starting role along side of AJ Hawk.  According to Pro Football Focus, Jones ended up with a +7.3 overall rating in 2012 and scored equally well in both pass and run defense with a +4.6.  So far in 2013, Jones has a +3.9 rating.  While not stellar, Jones has been OK in pass coverage, an area that Packers linebackers have lacked in.  Now Green Bay is faced with trying to plug these two holes.

Mike Neal will assume one of the outside linebacker spots opposite Nick Perry.  ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde ran an interesting piece on Neal’s transformation to OLB.  Perry had success coming off of the right side and so Neal could line up left.  Both had a decent showing against Detroit and any similar production would come in very handy at Baltimore.

At middle linebacker, the Packers went from thin to thinner on Sunday.  After Jones was lost, Robert Francois filled in.  Francois then suffered a torn Achilles and has already been placed on season-ending injured reserve.  Francois was replaced by Jamari Lattimore.  Lattimore will likely remain with the first unit in the team’s base 3-4 defense.

Behind these incumbents, the Packers will rely on their young and unproven depth to step in and contribute, where needed.  Sixth round draft pick Nate Palmer, seventh rounder Sam Barrington and undrafted free agent Andy Mulumba will all be asked to support the current starting cast.

7

October

Matthews To Miss At Least A Month

Clay Matthews

Questions remain about when Matthews will return and how effective he can be when he does

According to Fox Sports Wisconsin, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is expected to miss at least a month after breaking his thumb in Sunday’s win against the Detroit Lions.  The injury occurred towards the end of the third quarter following a sack of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Matthews was seen heading to the Packers locker room and he did not return.  On Monday, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy confirmed that Matthews will miss time and even went so far as to say that he is hopeful that Matthews will not be lost for the season.

Losing Matthews for any period of time is big for the Packers defense, but if the news ends up worse than originally thought and they are forced to play out the season without him, it would change the face of the entire unit.  Matthews is the team’s undisputed best defensive player and as such, he was rewarded with a handsome contract extension during the offseason.

Many players have been able to return from and play with a broken hand or broken fingers.  In 2010, former Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins played with a club cast after breaking his hand.  In 2011, safety Morgan Burnett played with the same-type club cast on his hand.  A safety would presumably need as much use of his hands as possible and to see Burnett out there with it would lead one to think that the Packers are hopeful that Matthews can return sooner than later.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers seemed to think that there was at least a chance that Matthews would get back and still be effective if he were to have to play with a cast on his hand.

In Matthews’ absence, the team will rely on Nick Perry and Mike Neal to provide a steady pass rush.  It’s nearly impossible to replace a player of Matthews’ caliber, but if yesterday was any indication, the Packers may be in better shape than previously thought.  Perry had two sacks with Neal registering one of his own.  Still, don’t expect the production of Neal and Perry to come near equaling that of Matthews.

Stay tuned for further updates as more is learned about Matthews and the course of action that the team will take.

3

October

Packers News: Matthews says he will “definitely” play vs. Lions

Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews says he will play Sunday. That's a big deal.

Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews says he will play Sunday. That’s a big deal.

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews tweaked his hamstring in Green Bay’s Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but the four-time Pro Bowler told reporters Thursday that he will “definitely” play Sunday against the Detroit Lions.

After being a full participant at Thursday’s practice, head coach Mike McCarthy was encouraged about Matthews’ prospects for Sunday.

“He took a step today,” McCarthy said, per JSOnline.com. “I’m optimistic.”

The hamstring injury has been a recurring issue for Matthews. After playing all 16 games as a rookie in 2009, Matthews missed one games in each of the following three seasons, and he missed four last year due to the hamstring injury.

According to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Matthews left little doubt as to whether or not he’d be able to play against the Lions.

Obviously, the news that Matthews will likely be in the lineup is big news for the Packers. Of all the elite defensive players in the NFL, Matthews may very well mean more to the Packers than any individual player means to his team’s defense. Matthews may not be the best defensive player in the NFL, but he is the Packers’ pass rush. And even more than that.

Jason Wilde, of ESPN Wisconsin, also suggested via Twitter that Matthews would play Sunday.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has only been sacked three times through four games, which is the least of any quarterback in the league. The presence of recently-acquired running back Reggie Bush has something to do with the low sack count, considering Stafford has been able to get the ball out early and find receivers on short pass patterns.

If the Packers were forced to take the field without Matthews, they likely would have struggled to get pressure on Stafford. Matthews’ bookend, Nick Perry, ranks No. 38 among 41 3-4 outside linebackers rushing the passer, according to Pro Football Focus–two spots behind former Packers linebacker Erik Walden.

13

June

Packers Inside Linebackers: Now what?

Desmond Bishop, Green Bay Packers

Bye Bye Bishop?

While nothing has been officially announced yet, by many accounts Desmond Bishop’s days as a Green Bay Packer appear to be over.

Speculation is rampant as to whether it’s strictly a “numbers” decision or if the Packers don’t believe he’ll ever be the same after a very serious injury. Bishop claims to be 100%, but has not participated in the Packers OTAs or mini camp.

Whatever the real reason, the big question is, now what?

I’ve seen a lot of  fans asking, “are we supposed to be happy with AJ Hawk and Brad Jones as our starting linebackers?”

My answer to that is, you won’t have to be. What you are likely to see is a lot of situational substitutions at the ILB spots. The Packers have a cadre of linebackers with complimentary skills. Dom Capers’ task will be to pick the right player/scheme for the specific situation.

Also remember the experimentation you’re seeing with Mike Neil and Mike Daniels being used in more of a linebacker role. The Packers suddenly find themselves very deep on the defensive line, and I would not be surprised to see some brand new defensive packages with fewer linebackers and more DL & DBs in the game.

We really won’t know until they line up against San Francisco in the first game that really matters, but you can bet they will have some new looks for Colin Kaepernick.

In the meantime, let’s take a quick look at the ILBs on the Packers’ roster:

AJ Hawk:  Always the team player and good soldier, Hawk has lasted this long as  a starter thanks to his firm grasp of the defensive schemes, ability to make the right defensive calls and his own assignment assuredness. There is no argument he has not lived up to expectations as the fifth player taken in the 2006 NFL draft, but the packers have been using him wisely.

As pointed out in this interesting piece over at Acme Packing Company, the Packers started using Hawk differently in 2012. Firstly, he was in on only 67% of the defensive snaps, as compared to over 90% each of the two previous years. Secondly, he was in on a higher percentage of running plays, a lower percentage of pass plays, and a very low percentage of pass rush attempts.  Expect those trends to continue.

10

June

Nick Perry preparing for an important sophomore season

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews

Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry faced a tough transition from a college defensive end to outside linebacker in his first NFL season.

Perry showed flashes of promise throughout training camp and through the early stages of the season before a wrist injury landed him on the injured reserve. Appearing in six regular-season games, Perry recorded a pair of sacks and eight quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

But since allowing the 49ers to rack up 579 yards in the playoffs, the Packers have made some changes to their defense. Perry, last year’s first-round pick, and Datone Jones, this year’s top pick, project as opening-day starters for the Packers in 2013.

Tyler Dunne wrote a piece outlining the importance of Perry and Jones at JSOnline.com, and Jacob Westendorf tabbed Perry’s improvement as the key to the Packers’ defense at PackersTalk.com.

Last season, the Packers ranked fourth in the NFL with 47 sacks. Clay Matthews racked up a team-high 13 sacks, while defensive end Mike Neal was second on the team with 4.5.

But if Perry lives up to his first-round draft position, the Packers finally have their bookend complement to Matthews. And although it’s only June and the team has yet to practice in full pads, head coach Mike McCarthy likes what he sees from Perry.

“He looks so much smoother and athletic than he did as a rookie,” McCarthy said, according to ESPN.com. “A lot of that is the transition he was making. Nick is a powerful man.”

Perry’s physicality will be a welcome addition not only to the pass rush, but to the Packers’ run defense as well. For the second consecutive season, Pro Football Focus graded former Packer Erik Walden as the worst 3-4 outside linebacker in football. Against the run, Walden came in at No. 26 among 34 players at his position.

Just six games into his professional career, it’s far too early to rush to any conclusions about Perry’s NFL future. But athletically, Perry certainly gives the Packers a lot to be excited about.

At last year’s NFL Scouting Combine at 271 pounds, Perry clocked a 4.55 in the forty-yard dash, put up 35 reps on the 225-pound bench press and recorded a vertical jump of 38.5 inches. Perry’s ten-yard split of 1.51 seconds bests 2013 fourth-round running back Johnathan Franklin’s time of 1.54.

29

May

Packers Curious Love Affair with Nate Palmer

Packers sixth round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, Nate Palmer, OLB, Illinois St.

Nate Palmer, OLB, Illinois St.

Ted Thompson didn’t have to do it. Nate Palmer was not going to be drafted. You would be hard pressed to find him breaking the top 400 in anyone’s big board or player rankings.

Yet, when the Packers’ turn came up in the sixth round, they made Palmer the 193rd player drafted. This despite the fact they were holding three seventh round picks, and could have surely taken him with their last pick at # 232. Even better, as the only team that had him in for a tryout, the Packers would have been frontrunners to sign him as an Undrafted Free Agent (UDFA), although I can understand not wanting to risk that.

But why jump the gun and take him in the sixth? This is a question that’s been bugging me for the last month. In a draft where the Packers got fantastic value by not jumping the gun on Eddie Lacy or Johnathan Franklin, why not let Palmer fall to them in the 7th? That’s what Ted does.

Now, I can hear you all out there saying, “Hey Al – that’s speculation, some other team could have taken him.” Of course that’s a possibility, but pretty remote, as neither Palmer or his coach expected him to be drafted at all. He wasn’t even listed as a Free Agent signee on most draft boards, meaning he was expected to be a tryout invite guy. He was shocked when he got the call from Green Bay.

The Packers have had some measure of success in bringing in DE to OLB conversion projects from small schools (Zombo, Lattimore, Moses), but all were free agents. So does drafting Palmer mean they think he is a better prospect than the rest?

By now, you probably know the story of how Packers OLB coach Kevin Greene and Illinois State coach Spence Nowinsky spent a day together exchanging pass-rushing knowledge and watching tape of Clay Matthews (if not, read about it here). As he watched the Packers defense and how they used Matthews, Nowinsky kept thinking to himself how well Palmer would fit in the Packers’ defense. “As I’m watching that, I’m thinking Nate has a great opportunity with the Packers because his skill, his athleticism, his work ethic, he fits in really good,” Nowinsky said.

16

May

Five potential breakout players for 2013: Who will it be?

Packers CB Davon House

Packers CB Davon House

Every NFL season begins with a blank slate and ends with a long list of newly-minted star players.

Last season, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick may be the prime example of a player that took the next step and pushed his team to the next level, as San Francisco won the NFC and advanced to Super Bowl XLVII.

Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas went from being an afterthought in a Tim Tebow-led offense in 2011 to being one of the most dangerous offensive players in football in 2012. Thomas ranked fourth in the NFL with 1,434 receiving yards.

And in Green Bay, a pair of Packers wideouts enjoyed breakout years of their own.

After showing flashes of brilliance as a rookie in 2011, Randall Cobb exploded onto the scene last season, leading the team with 80 catches and 954 receiving yards. Cobb is the odds-on favorite to lead the team in both categories in 2013.

Fellow receiver James Jones enjoyed a breakout season of his own. Jones set career highs in all three major categories, catching 64 passes for 784 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Playing in an offense with Aaron Rodgers under center, any receiver could become the team’s “go-to guy” on a week-to-week basis. But Jordy Nelson had his coming-out party in 2011, and Jones and Cobb had their last year. So unless one of the Packers young, unproven receivers can take a step forward and join the rotation, this year’s breakout player may be on the defensive side of the ball.

Let’s take a look at five potential breakout candidates for the 2013 season. Feel free to comment and let me know who you think will be the team’s breakout player this season, even if they’re not on the list.

(NOTE: Rookies will not be included on this list. It’s tough to forecast a rookie having a breakout year when he has yet to play a single down at the NFL level. That means Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin and Datone Jones are not listed.)

1. FS Morgan Burnett

It took Nick Collins until his fourth season to reach his potential. Morgan Burnett may not be Collins, but there are some distinct similarities between the two. And through their first three NFL seasons, Burnett trumps Collins in most statistical categories.