Clay Matthews is the defense's best player, and it's not even close.
Is it any wonder why the Packers went from 19th to 11th in points allowed and the pass defense rebounded from a record-setting beatdown to allow 81 fewer passing yards per game? Last season, Matthews finished with only six sacks. Even while missing four games this season, Matthews piled up 13 sacks. He added three more in the playoffs.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers moved Matthews from the left side to the right side, meaning he'd be taking on the opponents' left tackle. Matthews responded with a vengeance by finishing fifth in sacks and helping the Packers rank fourth in the league with 47 – an improvement of 18 sacks from last season.
Sacks aren't everything. He recorded 42 quarterback hits, based on the team's statistics. With the four missing games taken into account, that's right about on par with last year's total of 53. Based on ProFootballFocus.com's data, Matthews' 49 total pressures on 356 pass-rushing snaps gave him the third-best rate in the league among 3-4 outside linebackers.
He was better than ever against the run. He posted 32 run stops, defined by ProFootballFocus.com as a solo tackle that leads to an "offensive failure," such as stopping a first-and-10 play to a gain of 3 yards or less. He recorded 35 run stops last season. He missed just one tackle and forced one fumble.
Rest of the depth chart
Last season, Erik Walden played inconsistently and got into off-the-field trouble. The Packers re-signed him but used their first-round pick on Nick Perry. With Perry struggling early and sustaining a season-ending knee injury in Week 6, Walden played about the same number of snaps in 2012 as he did in 2011. The production and performance were similar, too. Playing about 50 snaps per game, he recorded 71 tackles, three sacks, 26 quarterback hits, two interceptions, five passes defensed, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries. In 2011, Walden recorded 86 tackles, three sacks, 30 quarterback hits, no interceptions, two quarterback hits, no forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Undrafted rookie Dezman Moses, with some linebacker background, looked more natural than Perry in training camp and made more impact plays in camp and the preseason games. Moses started the season as an extra pass rusher and wound up taking a significant role with Perry out. Playing about 28 snaps per game, he finished with 39 tackles, four sacks, 11 quarterback hits and a forced fumble.
Perry looked like a fish out of water making the transition from defensive end in USC's 4-3 scheme to outside linebacker in Green Bay's 3-4. He's big, strong and fast but didn't play to that Scouting Combine skill-set. After playing every snap in Week 1 against San Francisco, Perry entered into a timeshare with Walden. In five-plus games, he finished with 29 tackles, two sacks and five quarterback hits.
Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene was reasonably happy with Perry's adjustment.
"He just needs more time and more cleats on the ground on the practice field and in games to increase his vision and increase his physicality," Greene said. "You go back to the Indianapolis game, we asked him to run vertical with Reggie Wayne in a hip-trail position. That's not an easy thing to do for a 265-pound man but he did it pretty good. The next play, we asked him to run over an offensive tackle. He can do it, he can play this position, absolutely."
It was another lost season for Frank Zombo. As an undrafted free agent in 2010, he recorded four sacks in part-time duty during the Packers' run to the Super Bowl. He missed the first 10 games of this season due to a hamstring injury that kept him out of training camp. He had no sacks and three quarterback hits.
"I think every one of my guys improved," Greene said. "I think Clay was a better player this year than he was last year. I think Erik Walden was a better player. I think a guy like Dezman Moses comes out of the blue and he turns out to be a fine player and does some good things. I think they improved this year and they're going to be so much better next year than they were this year because this position really takes time to grow into. It's just hard to hit the ground running in this position just being a new kid put in it. It takes a little time to settle in and understand all the little details about the position. Then you can start improving.
C-plus: Matthews was consistently terrific. Walden and Moses were consistently inconsistent. Walden played perhaps his best game of the season in the playoff win over Minnesota. Whenever Adrian Peterson looked to bounce the ball outside, Walden was waiting. One week later against San Francisco, quarterback Colin Kaepernick played Walden like a yo-yo. Moses had four quarterback hits against Detroit on Nov. 18 and a total of four over the last six regular-season games. The tackling was outstanding. Walden (two), Matthews (one) and Moses (one) combined for four missed tackles.
Matthews will be entering the final year of his contract and has to be Priority No. 1. Moses, after a solid rookie season, is a lock to return, as well. But who else forms the depth chart when training camp begins? Will Perry be ready to go? Will Walden, an unrestricted free agent, be re-signed? Will Zombo get another chance?
The production on paper looks fine. Moses, Walden and Perry combined for nine sacks. Throw in Zombo, and they combined for 45 quarterback hits. That's better than last year's six sacks and 37 quarterback hits. Still, is any offensive coordinator burning the midnight oil to find ways to prevent Walden, Moses or Perry from sacking the quarterback or ruining the running game? No. The Packers used a first-round pick on Perry and they badly need him to become, in Greene's lingo, a "butt-kicker."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.