GREEN BAY—The Packers have acted out this play before, but this time it’s with different characters.
Last year, when Pro Bowler Clay Matthews missed a month with a hamstring injury, Erik Walden and Dezman Moses held down the fort at outside linebacker well enough to help the Packers win three of four games in Matthews’ absence.
This year, as the Packers prepare to be without Matthews (broken thumb) for “multiple weeks,” according to Mike McCarthy, the spotlight will shine on Nick Perry and Mike Neal, and from the head coach on down there’s every belief they can get the job done.
“I am confident,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Obviously, we’re a better football team with Clay Matthews on the field. But we’ve had injuries here in the past, and it’s next-guy-up mentality.
“Nick had two sacks on Sunday, Mike had a sack on Sunday, Andy Mulumba played well. It’s going to be on those guys and Nate Palmer to pick up the slack.”
The performances of Perry and Neal last week against Detroit were certainly encouraging. Going against a Lions offense that had allowed only three sacks through four games, Perry and Neal combined for three of the Packers’ five sacks on the day.
Then again, there was the second half in Cincinnati without Matthews, when neither outside linebacker did anything noteworthy and Bengals QB Andy Dalton posted a 150-plus passer rating over two quarters.
“We’re going to miss Clay,” said Neal, whose conversion from defensive end to outside linebacker this year has gone rather smoothly. “Clay brings a lot of stuff to the table, but I think people get so caught up in Clay’s ability to make plays, that everybody just has to play their game.
“I’m not trying to mimic Clay. I’m not Clay. I’m Mike Neal. I’ll be able to play like Mike Neal plays.”
Neal added that he may try to slim down another five to six pounds – he has already dropped about 20 pounds from last year with the position switch – to help him play more snaps.
Perry, meanwhile, could benefit from switching sides of the defensive formation. Both of his sacks against the Lions came from the right side, against the offense’s left tackle, which is the spot Matthews normally plays.
“It was nice to see him get a sack or two,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “We know Nick can play. He’s a handful for anybody to block all game. We all know that. He’s been injured (last year as a rookie) and what not. He’s going to be a great rusher for us now and years to come.”
Behind Perry and Neal will be rookies Mulumba and Palmer. Mulumba missed practice on Wednesday with a swollen ankle, but McCarthy said he hopes he can practice on Thursday.
Palmer is a sixth-round pick from Illinois State who had a quiet training camp until flashing in the preseason finale with a sack and forced fumble, helping him make the team.
“I’m just waiting my time,” Palmer said. “I want to get out there and show what I’ve got, but you just have to wait for your opportunity, and when your opportunity comes you have to capitalize.”
That’s precisely the approach being taken by inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, who will now start alongside A.J. Hawk due to injuries to Brad Jones (hamstring) and Robert Francois (Achilles, IR). McCarthy said Jones’ injury is not expected to be long term.
A special-teams standout in his three-year pro career, Lattimore is next in line at a position that has been an injury-induced revolving door in recent years. In 2010, Desmond Bishop stepped in for Nick Barnett. Then last year, Jones took over after both Bishop and D.J. Smith went down.
McCarthy spoke of the “good football” Lattimore has played for the Packers and believes he’s “ready to go.”
“It’s a big chance for anybody, not necessarily me, but for anybody who steps on the field,” said Lattimore, who will be backed up by rookie seventh-round pick Sam Barrington.
“I’m trying to calm myself down, but I’m excited. Very excited. You don’t overthink it or overdo it. Just take it how it comes. Don’t be too anxious or too worried. Just trust your training.”
As others have done before him. Additional coverage - Oct. 9