Position Series: OLBs In-Depth

Our breakdown starts with the leader of the pack, Clay Matthews, and includes our breakout performer, sleeper and much more. What two prominent players find themselves on the roster bubble?

Here's an extended look at the Green Bay Packers' outside linebackers.

Leader of the Pack

Clay Matthews: Matthews was the Packers' "Lone Ranger" of pass rushing last season, a fact that ultimately sabotaged a defense that went from second in points allowed in 2010 to 32nd in yards allowed in 2011.

Last season, he finished with six sacks. He had that many in the first two games of 2010 on his way to 13.5. Making matters worse, by the Packers' count, Matthews had 53 of the defense's 129 quarterback hits – 41.1 percent.

The obvious hope is the additions of first-round pick Nick Perry to play the other outside linebacker slot and second-round pick Jerel Worthy to improve the defensive line's woeful pass rush, will allow Matthews an easier path to the passer.

"You look historically at 3-4 defenses and the success of outside linebackers, there's two studs coming off the edge," Matthews said. "Even in today's game, you look at Pittsburgh, the Cowboys, some of those teams, they've got some studs. He's going to help us out, especially the guys in the middle pushing the pocket back and the guys on the back end. It comes down to being a team game but there are positions that can help you more than others."

Breakout performer

Frank Zombo: Zombo was one of the heroes of the Super Bowl team. The Packers probably wouldn't have won the championship if not for Zombo's emergence as an undrafted rookie. In eight starts and 13 games, Zombo recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles. He missed the end of the regular season and the NFC playoffs with a knee sprain but returned for the Super Bowl and sacked Ben Roethlisberger.

Unless Perry is a major disappointment, Zombo won't be in contention for a starting role, but his experience and production will get him on the field as the position's top backup.

Maybe.

"He's a good one," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "I like Frank, now. We just have to keep him healthy."

Sleeper

Vic So'oto: Call it Flavor of the Day Syndrome. As an undrafted rookie, So'oto was one of the sensations of training camp and the preseason last summer. Still, even with a chronic need for a playmaker at opposite linebacker, So'oto played in just seven games and didn't get any significant action on defense until the final two weeks of the regular season. Even with a sack in Week 17, he found himself inactive for the playoff game.

Even with undrafted rookie Dezman Moses' strong offseason work rendering So'oto a media afterthought, he's very much on the mind of Greene.

"He's a good player," Greene said. "It's going to be a very competitive camp. He's a very physical kid. He's learned, he's improved. I've got some really solid, solid young players in my room. It's going to be a very, very competitive training camp."

On the bubble

Zombo and Erik Walden: That Zombo is listed twice is fitting. He's physical with a pass-rushing track record, but he can't stay healthy. Last year, Zombo played in just five games due to a broken shoulder blade and injuries to his hamstring and knee. His production plunged to one sack and no turnover-producing plays.

The Packers retained Walden rather than losing him in free agency. In 2010, he had three sacks against Chicago. In 2011, he had three sacks in 15 starts and was demoted in Week 17 and the playoff game. In 53 career games, including 17 starts, Walden hasn't forced a fumble or intercepted a pass. At this point, there's little reason to believe Walden will be anything more than so-so.

Noteworthy number

6: Matthews' six sacks were as many as the rest of the outside linebackers combined. By the Packers' count, Matthews had six sacks, 53 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, three interceptions and nine passes defensed. Plus, according to ProFootballFocus.com, Matthews added 36 run stops. Compare that to the rest of the outside linebackers, who combined for six sacks, 37 quarterback hits, no forced fumbles, no interceptions, two passes defensed and 29 run stops.

Extra point

Perry might be the key to the entire defense. The Packers want to move Matthews around to take advantage of matchups, but they can't do that if the other outside linebacker can't do the same.

Perry was the top outside linebacker prospect scouted by Greene, and he's also got Matthews' seal of approval.

"The good thing is I was able to play with him for one year at SC, so there's a common bond there," Matthews said. "In talking with the coaches in the pre-draft process, I liked the kid outside of his physical attributes just because he's willing to learn, he wants to be good and he's a character guy. First and foremost, he'll fit in with this team. He's already shown a willingness to learn. He's been asking me questions. It's only going to benefit him, as well as myself and this defense, the sooner he gets up to speed."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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