Matthews' Injury Leaves Defense Searching

Even while missing four games, Clay Matthews leads the Packers in sacks and quarterback hits. Without the defense's only consistent presence and with Nick Perry and Mike Neal banged up, can the Packers find the answers for Chicago and (possibly) beyond?

The Green Bay Packers might be getting healthy on offense.

It's the defense that's the problem heading into Sunday's showdown at Chicago.

Led by a high-octane passing attack and the versatility of star running back Matt Forte, the Bears rank third in the league with 27.8 points per game.

If Green Bay is going to beat the Bears and have any chance for playoff success, it will have to do it without Clay Matthews. Matthews, who is about the only reliable presence on the defensive front seven, had surgery to repair his re-injured thumb this week and is out indefinitely.

In 11 games, he leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits.

"When you're the player the caliber of Clay, you're going to draw a lot of attention," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Friday. "So, obviously, it influences an opponent's game plan because they don't want to leave him in a lot of 1-on-1 situations, so that's just the way it is. But, yeah, I think offenses view you differently when Clay's not on the field."

Without Matthews, the Packers will rely on Mike Neal and Nick Perry, who have been battling injuries for much of the season, and undrafted rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer.

"Obviously, my heart breaks for Clay and everything, but I have complete trust and confidence that Mike Neal and Andy Mulumba and Nick Perry and Nate Palmer are going to be out there and do their job," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "They're going to lay it on the line. I trust that."

Neal (abdomen) and Perry (ankle) practiced on Thursday but were held out on Friday for precautionary reasons. They've been dogged by injuries for much of the season.

Neal, who entered this season having played in only 19 of 48 career games, has managed to get through the first 15 games of this season, despite injuries that have prevented him from practicing much for the last several weeks. Envisioned as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker at the start of the season, he's played almost exclusively at linebacker since Matthews initially broke his thumb against Detroit on Oct. 6. Neal is tied for third on the team with five sacks and is second with 16 quarterback hits, according to the coaches' count. He had a game-changing sack and strip against Atlanta.

"He's a physical presence," Greene said. "I like his attitude. He's given us some pass rush. He's given us a couple of key plays that's helped the course of a game. He's really come in and become a playmaker in his own right in a brand new position. He's a rookie at this position. I think he has played exceptionally well considering he's been a one- and three-technique his whole life. Now he's an outside linebacker at 285. I think he's done some pretty good things."

Perry has made a couple big plays, with sack/strips against Baltimore and Detroit. However, Perry broke his foot in the Baltimore game and missed the next three games. In his second game back, Perry was hurt again. He missed one game and has seen his practice and playing time limited the last four weeks. He played in only 22 snaps against Pittsburgh last week.

Perry has four sacks and eight quarterback hits, though none in the past two games. Perry and Matthews are tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles.

"They better be," Greene said when asked if Neal and Perry are ready to perform in spite of their injuries. "I don't think there's any tomorrow. Whatever is left in their tank right now, they've got to play it. It's got to come to the forefront. It's got to come to the table. They will. I know they're both hurting, they're both nicked up, but I have the utmost confidence they're going to lay it on the line for their brothers, for the organization. I trust that."

Mulumba, an undrafted free agent, has no sacks and one quarterback hit in 261 snaps this year. He played more snaps (25) than Perry last week. Palmer, a sixth-round pick, has no sacks and three quarterback hits in 200 snaps. He has not played on defense in the last five games. Mulumba, a strong, physical player, is better against the run. Palmer fell out of the rotation because of his problems defending the run.

Now, those rookies are going to have to step to the forefront. Outside of Mike Daniels, who is second on the team with 6.5 sacks, the defensive line hasn't provided nearly enough impact plays. Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore have combined for 10 sacks, but Hawk hasn't been a consistent force, Jones – who has been dealing with a bum ankle – has missed too many tackles and the coaches haven't shown complete faith in Lattimore.

In the four games Matthews has missed, the Packers averaged 2.75 sacks and 8.75 quarterback hits. In the 11 games with Matthews, the Packers averaged 2.91 sacks and 6.45 quarterback hits. So, the drop-off hasn't been dramatic.

"Well, I think everybody knows," Capers said of the slack that needs to be picked up. "We've certainly been through our share of those situations. We've had guys step up and play. We've got young guys who we'll put out there. Those guys will be excited to go out and show what they're capable of doing, so it's going to be important for them to play and play well. A game of this importance, everybody's got to be at the top of their game and prepared to play your best football game."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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