I’m guessing this week’s episode of From the Benches will air sometime today. On that show I explained why moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker on two fronts. First of all it takes him off of the edge. I understand that that might be a pessimistic view, but Matthews was really struggling this year as a run defender. PFF grades both he and Julius Peppers in the negative for run defense. Having both OLBs in a 3-4 more concerned about hitting the QB than stopping the run makes life difficult.
I had suggested this move for Matthews in this article from May. It highlighted how making a weakness in this defense a strength would be done the easiest by using Matthews. Sunday night’s game was Matthew’s best effort against the run by far. His +1.4 grade and +4.0 overall grade were both season highs. His ability to positively affect the run game instead of being a liability on the edge is a huge switch for this defense. This obviously begs the question: who replaces Matthews in the base defense?
The answer is a couple of top 60 picks. Both Nick Perry and Mike Neal played defensive line in college, and both players have trimmed down and are playing OLB in Dom Capers’ scheme. One if not both of these players has to hold up against the run and be able to rush the passer on early downs across from Julius Peppers if this experiment is going to work.
Nick Perry seems as though he just needs to stay healthy. In just 220 snaps this season, Perry has 3 sacks, 1 QB Hit, 9 QB Hurries and a pass breakup. That’s making a lot of plays with limited opportunity. Last season Perry was limited to 373 snaps in total. Most of the snaps he was able to play were not played at 100%. He still managed 4 sacks, 21 QB hurries and a pass breakup in those snaps. His -2.1 season long grade against the run in 2013 was not abysmal, but not ideal for a man considered huge for the OLB position. Perry has been very average against the run this season as well, grading at a -0.1. Almost exactly average.
Mike Neal is a different story. A lot of casual observers last season thought the switch to OLB had somehow breathed life into Neal’s dying career. In reality Neal was unfamiliar with his new position and was forced to play way too many snaps. He had decent numbers with 5 sacks and 37 QB hurries, but his -10.3 grade against the run was 3rd worst on the team, which is pretty unacceptable for a former defensive tackle playing outside linebacker. This season has had flipped results for Neal. His pass rush game has weakened significantly, but he too has been at least mediocre against the run.
The Green Bay Packers need to get better against the run. In fact, if they could get to a place where their run defense was “mediocre”, they would be a team without a glaring weakness. Despite what happened in New Orleans without Shields and Burnett the Packers have a very good pass defense. They rush the passer and are very talented in the back end. Perry and Neal have spent part of their careers trying to be the answer across from Clay Matthews and replacing him during nagging injuries. Their job now becomes replacing him on early downs. If they can do it successfully, the Packers might have just shored up their biggest weakness.