GREEN BAY – The Packers have felt strongly all year about the depth in the front seven of their defense.
They may need to dip into those reserves this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers depending on the prognosis for Clay Matthews and Kenny Clark.
Matthews (groin) and Clark (ankle) exited with injuries during Sunday’s game against Baltimore and didn’t return. Head Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t have an update on either player Monday, with the medical staff still collecting information.
Both Matthews and Clark have played a pivotal role in the defensive resurgence since the bye week, especially against the run. Over the last three games, the Packers have limited opposing teams to 177 yards and two touchdowns on 76 carries (2.3 yards per attempt).
The performances have led to Green Bay’s run defense shaving 20 yards per game off its average, improving from 27th in Week 8 to 11th after Sunday’s game against the Ravens.
Clark has been one of the defense’s most consistent players this season, recording 32 tackles (21 solo) with a forced fumble in 10 starts. His 432 snaps are fourth-most on defense.
The former first-round pick has proven to be efficient in picking up and defeating double-teams, but his lateral quickness and athleticism to make tackles sideline-to-sideline has been one of the defense’s greatest strengths.
“That’s going to be a challenge,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers when asked about the void Clark leaves if he misses time. “Kenny’s been playing extremely well. We’ve liked our matchups with Kenny. He gets a lot of double teams in there. We’ll have to go to work and see what we come up with here in terms of trying to make up if we don’t have Kenny.”
The Packers have two reserve options at nose tackle in fifth-year veteran Quinton Dial and third-round pick Montravius Adams. Dial missed two games after the bye with a chest injury, but had two tackles in 24 defensive snaps against the Ravens.
It also would require more of Mike Daniels and Dean Lowry in Green Bay’s sub-packages. Like Clark, Lowry already has surpassed his rookie numbers with 16 tackles and 1½ sacks in 10 games (eight starts) this season.
“I think Dean has been doing a great job,” Daniels said. “He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid. It’s definitely good to have him in our room. He just gets better every day.”
Matthews managed to steer clear of injuries for much of the season before leaving 13 snaps into Sunday’s game against Baltimore. Matthews, who is third in defensive snaps, is one of only two Packers’ outside linebackers to play in all 10 games with Kyler Fackrell being the other.
Capers has been creative with how he’s used the six-time Pro Bowler, occasionally lining him up off the line of scrimmage in the Packers’ base defense and rushing him from all across the line of scrimmage in the dime sub-package.
Fackrell, a third-round pick a year ago, has been the third rusher in the rotation for most of the season with veteran Ahmad Brooks and rookie Vince Biegel missing time due to injuries.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound linebacker had arguably his best game in a Packers’ uniform against the Ravens, with five tackles (two for a loss) and a sack of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco in 34 snaps.
Biegel, a fourth-round pick this year, spent seven games on the physically unable to perform list after undergoing offseason foot surgery. The Wisconsin Rapids native has seven tackles in his first three NFL games, along with contributing to Lowry’s sack against the Ravens.
“He probably needs to be ready for more,” Capers said. “Again, not knowing what Clay’s status is going to be, but we’ve gotten Brooks back here in the last couple weeks. That helps. I thought Kyler (was) taking a step in the right direction (Sunday) and then Vince has gotten some snaps now. We just have to keep those guys coming along.”
With the run defense containing opposing offenses, the Packers’ pass rush has taken a step with eight sacks and 13 quarterback hits over the past two weeks.
If Green Bay is without Matthews or Clark, it’s going to be on the defensive players around them to step up. Injuries or not, it’s been the contributions from the likes of Clark, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Jake Ryan that have propelled the defense into the final stretch of the regular season in recent years.
After a solid showing against the Ravens, the Packers will continue searching for big plays from whichever 11 players are on the field. They earned one takeaway – a Clinton-Dix interception – against Baltimore and are seeking more this Sunday against the Steelers.
“I felt we were able to make quite a few negative plays, which had a lot to do with the down and distance, both in the run and the pass game,” Capers said. “I thought our pressure at times was good in terms of trying to get Flacco off the spot. We wound up with three sacks. We only had the one interception. When you’re in a game like we were, we have to try to create more takeaways.”