GREEN BAY — Clay Matthews has been the face of the Green Bay Packers’ pass rush for the better part of seven years now.
While the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker continues to be the primary target on scouting reports across the NFL, Matthews isn’t the only edge rusher offensive coordinators are scheming for these days.
If the Packers’ first three regular-season games proved anything, it’s that the coffers run deep at outside linebacker with four former first-round draft picks leading a deep rotation of pass rushers.
Green Bay’s 3.3 sacks per game are tied for third in the NFL through the first month of the season with Nick Perry (3½ sacks), Matthews (two sacks), Julius Peppers (1½ sacks) and third-round pick Kyler Fackrell (one sack) each getting to the quarterback at least once.
When you couple that production with the disruption Mike Daniels and the defensive front have caused, it has the Packers energized about the long-term potential of their pressure packages.
“That’s what I think is what’s given us a lot of success this year. We have so many guys coming in and out who can rush from the inside and outside,” said Matthews on Thursday.
“A guy like Julius, Nick, Datone (Jones) with his physical size and speed, and myself – it presents a problem for the opposition. You can’t just study one guy. Everybody has their own craft and I think that’s why we’ve been so balanced across the board in being disruptive.”
Matthews (ankle, hamstring) and Jones (knee) sat out against Detroit two weeks ago, but the Packers worked through their absence to keep pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford late in the contest.
Perry, a first-round pick in 2012, registered both of his sacks on third downs in the fourth quarter, which helped slam the door on any hopes of a comeback and preserve a 34-27 victory for Green Bay.
The Packers always planned on having Matthews and Perry – both USC products – to be the focal point of their pass rush, but a rash of injuries often stood in the way of Perry’s progress.
In the meantime, the defense converted Mike Neal to outside linebacker and utilized a rotation of undrafted players to get by at the position until Peppers’ arrival in free agency in 2014.
Jones’ shift to an outside linebacker completed a makeover that’s been years in the making for the Packers’ pass rush. So far, it’s paid dividends early this season.
“I really like our depth at the outside position,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We feel comfortable with a lot of different combinations there. You have the veteran leadership with Julius, Clay is back out there. We like what Clay can give us and I think Nick Perry is off to his best start since he’s been here.”
It took time for Perry and Jones to get healthy and find comfort in the defense, but both have factored heavily into the success the Packers have had setting the edge against the run in early-down situations.
Peppers said before the Packers’ Week 4 bye that the defensive front’s penetration is what’s enabled Green Bay to lead the NFL in run defense (42.7 yards per game) through the first quarter of the season.
The increase in third-and-long situations has allowed the pass rushers to pin their ears back on more occasions in the dime defense, and Capers hasn’t bashful about sending all four of his primary rushers at the same time.
“It gives us more options in our pass-rushing packages where we can sub and interchange guys in different positions to have a couple different looks,” said Peppers, who rushes from the inside in the dime.
“Hopefully, it’ll be great to have everybody back this week and have everyone healthy, and ready to go.”
Matthews has been limited in practice this week, but hopes “to cut it loose” on Sunday night against the New York Giants where he’ll likely lineup across from 2015 first-round pick Ereck Flowers (6-6, 330).
Jones and defensive lineman Letroy Guion (knee) were both full participants during Thursday’s padded work, a sign the Packers could have their full complement of outside linebackers and defensive linemen.
Despite New York’s questions at right tackle, it hasn’t been easy to get to Eli Manning this season. The Giants seemed to make it a point to get the ball out of his hand quickly during Monday night’s 24-10 loss to Minnesota.
The Packers believe the amount of personnel Capers can throw at opposing offenses will benefit the defense in the long run and take some of the emphasis off Matthews and Peppers, who have combined for nearly half of the defense’s sacks over the past two seasons.
“It’s a blessing and it’s great from a coaching standpoint to have so many different options and different skill sets who are all very capable of playing at a high level,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “So Sunday night if we can get all those guys on the field at different times or times that we see best fit their ability to impact games, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The work isn’t over for the Packers’ defense. Capers is the first to admit that the unit has allowed too many big plays through the air to start the season, but the framework for a top-ranked defense is in place.
Matthews says the early success has been a product of pass rushers beating their man and getting after the quarterback. It’s a blueprint the Packers will look to replicate this Sunday against the Giants.
“I think we are on the right path,” said Peppers of the defense. “I think we are one of the better defenses. We have a couple things we have to clean up. We need a little more from everybody. I think that will help. I think we’re on our way.”
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