What do the Packers do without the player who statistically is the best pass rusher in franchise history?
Since the NFL made sacks an official statistic in 1982, Clay Matthews has averaged 0.734 sacks per game. That's better than Tim Harris (0.724), Reggie White (0.721), Tony Bennett (0.640) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (0.600), according to Packer Report's offseason research.
Other than quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Matthews is the most irreplaceable player on the team. But, replace him they must for the next month or so.
When Matthews missed four games last season, the Packers tallied seven sacks and 23 quarterback hits (coaches' count), or 1.75 sacks and 7.75 hits per game. In the final three games that Matthews watched from the sideline, Green Bay had just two sacks and 13 hits. That's 0.67 sacks and 4.33 quarterback hits in those games. In the 12 games with Matthews, the Packers averaged 3.33 sacks and 9.67 hits.
Based on Sunday's game, the Packers are in better position to survive this stretch of games than they were last season, when mediocre Erik Walden was the other starter, Nick Perry was on injured reserve and Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo didn't provide enough production.
Perry, who had two sacks in six games last season, had two against the Lions. Interestingly, Perry's sacks came from right outside linebacker. That's Matthews' spot on the defense. Both of Perry's plays were impressive. On the first, he was held but got the sack, anyway. On the second, he knocked the ball loose from Matthew Stafford.
"I think that's Nick's forte (bull rushing) because of his strength and his power, but he made a couple good moves," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Monday. "He's got a little move where he'll come as if he's going to power and he slips and dips his shoulder. As a matter of fact, the one sack he had — the first sack — the tackle held him. If you watch that, he jerked him and he kind of powered through the thing to make the sack."
Mike Neal, who replaced Perry in the starting lineup, took about three-fourths of his 45 snaps at outside linebacker. He had one sack and a handful of pressures.
"I think Mike Neal did an exceptional job yesterday," coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday.
Then again, that duo did almost nothing against Cincinnati, when Matthews missed the second half with an injured hamstring. Perry and Neal didn't record so much as one quarterback hit, by the coaches' count.
"We need more. Yeah, we need more," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said on Friday. "I think we're still looking for that guy. We've got Nick in there and we've got Mike Neal in there and we're still looking for one of those guys to step up and start to be that playmaker opposite of Claymaker. Whoever starts stepping up and doing some good things is going to see more playing time. It's all about winning and production."
For the next month, the Packers will be counting on them to provide that production so Capers won't have to manufacture a rush through blitzing and scheme. What duo will the Packers get on a weekly basis? The one that showed up against Detroit or was invisible against Cincinnati? Can they produce without Matthews wearing the offense's bull's-eye? And can Andy Mulumba or Nate Palmer do anything so Perry and Neal can get a break?
"Eventually, I'm hoping – we all hope – that our players get it eventually, right?" Greene said. "Regardless of what round you're drafted in or you're a free agent, when you put them on the field, you're hoping that they're eventually going to see it and get it and be playmakers. We're hoping that they see the light and start doing those things."
One of the trademarks of McCarthy's offenses is how they dominate situational football.
In the red zone, Green Bay has scored touchdowns a league-best 61.7 percent of the time since Aaron Rodgers took over as quarterback in 2008. The Packers ranked third in the league last season with 68.1 percent touchdowns — their best since STATS began tracking that stat in 1995.
On third down, Green Bay entered the season ranked third in the league at 44.7 percent since the start of the 2009 season.
Thus far this season, the Packers haven't shown that situational dominance. It's not like they've been terrible. They just haven't been McCarthy-esque great. With 56.3 percent touchdowns in the red zone, Green Bay is tied for 13th. With 38.8 percent on third down, it ranks 12th.
Against the Lions, Green Bay went 0-for-2 in the red zone, including a drive that stalled on first-and-goal at the 4. Against the Bengals, it went 2-for-4. Both failures included a first-and-goal play from the 5.
"It's been disappointing," McCarthy said. "It's actually something we talked about over the bye week and we've had a couple of plays we just didn't convert. You look at the two down there with the dropped pass and our timing wasn't right on the third down. To me, it's football. I don't think it's anything we're doing that we need to change. Sometimes you're extremely effective down there, which we've been. The good thing is that we're getting down there. As long as we keep getting our attempts, I'm very confident we'll score touchdowns."
On third down, Green Bay's 43.8 percent success rate against Detroit is good stuff considering the Lions were a top-ranked 21.3 percent. Still, the Packers failed twice on third-and-1. On the first, with Eddie Lacy and Andrew Quarless in the lineup and Rodgers having a run-pass option, Rodgers threw quickly to the flat to Randall Cobb but the pass was batted down.
"They took a linebacker out of the interior and put him on the edge, and it's something we hadn't seen much of," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "I think we had some hesitation as to how to block it. You have to make a quick decision out on the field and Aaron made the decision to try to throw it out to Randall and the defender made the play on it."
On the second, Cobb lined up in the backfield. Rodgers went play-action and booted to the right, but felt immediate pressure and threw incomplete in the end zone to Jordy Nelson. Nelson lobbied for a flag but didn't get it.
"Play-caller. Just beat up the play-caller," McCarthy said. "You guys have too much love in here today. That's your negative nugget of the day, I guess."
The feel-good bye is ancient history, and the Packers aren't feeling so good after the Detroit game. Not only is Matthews out, but Brad Jones presumably will miss some time with an injured hamstring and Robert Francois' season is over with a torn Achilles.
That puts the pressure on special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. Francois finished second on the team last season with 13 tackles on special teams and had two this season. Assuming Jones doesn't play, Jamari Lattimore will move into the starting lineup — which means he might be taken off of special teams. He had 10 tackles on special teams last season and three this season.
"We have to (be deep enough)," Slocum said of potentially going without Francois and Lattimore. "I mean, that's the nature of this business. It's happened to us before and the positive thing about it is we'll have some players have an opportunity to step up and they'll need to step up and play well."
Two of the key figures will be rookie linebackers Sam Barrington and Andy Mulumba.
"I think Andy played well yesterday," Slocum said. "He had a kickoff-coverage tackle and he had a holding on one of the punt returns that we don't need but he's playing well. Did a good job with his punt protection. I thought Sam Barrington played with a real edge yesterday and was overboard a little bit but really like what he's bringing to the table in terms of energy and playing hard."
Capers, like just about everyone else, was caught off-guard by the Lions' decision to rest Calvin Johnson.
"Yeah, I had no idea," Capers said. "I read the injury every week, but many times top players, if they're banged up a little bit, they might not practice and be limited on Friday and then you expect them to play. So, obviously, I had to take out the whiteout and there were about six defenses we had repped, a lot of that was whited out off the sheet so I wouldn't be sitting up there and calling, ‘OK, double 81.' 81 wasn't in the game. So, it did affect you."
An interesting parallel is last year's playoff game. Capers spent the week preparing for pocket-passing Christian Ponder, only to get athletic Joe Webb. Capers spent this past week preparing for Johnson and Detroit's wide-open offense. Without Johnson, the Lions could have gone to a run-heavy attack. That could have spelled trouble with Green Bay going light at defensive line by making C.J. Wilson one of its inactives.
"Yeah, a lot of things go through your mind because you've invested a lot of time in your initial plan, but you kind of prioritize," Capers said. "Once you eliminate Calvin Johnson, you go to Reggie Bush and Stafford. Obviously, you have to try to make sure he doesn't get into a rhythm because if he gets in a groove, they'll throw it every down. Their screen game was a really high priority to us because they'd run so many screens. They're a team that their offensive philosophy is they'll spread you out and let him call a lot of the game at the line based off what kind of looks you're giving him."
So, was it easier for Green Bay's defense without Johnson? Of course. But credit Capers and the defense for slamming the door.
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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.