Niners Will Test Raw Outside Linebackers

Even with Clay Matthews, the Packers' defense had no answers for Colin Kaepernick in last year's playoffs. On Sunday, San Francisco's diverse scheme will stress the inexperienced trio of Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Andy Mulumba.

In last year's playoff game, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick made a punch line out of the Green Bay Packers' defense.

Kaepernick set a playoff record for a quarterback by rushing for 181 yards. He left just about all of the Packers' defenders looking silly, and he left veteran outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Eric Walden looking dazed and confused.

Outside linebackers are the focal point of any 3-4 defensive scheme and they are paramount in stopping the 49ers' running game.

"They're a big factor in what we do, obviously," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Friday. "(The 49ers) force you to play assignment football because of what they do with mixing the zone read in, the pistol, athletic quarterback, very good downhill running back (Frank Gore)."

With Matthews out with an injured thumb and Walden playing in Indianapolis, the Packers have major question marks at outside linebacker heading into Sunday evening's playoff rematch against the 49ers.

Can Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Andy Mulumba do what Matthews and Walden couldn't do last year?

Their challenge is daunting.

Neal, a defensive lineman last season, was supposed to be a hybrid defensive lineman/outside linebacker this season. Injuries, however, have made him mostly an outside linebacker. Other than Matthews, he's been the Packers' best outside linebacker, but he doesn't have the athleticism and experience you'd want against a quarterback like Kaepernick.

Perry, a first-round pick in 2012, should have been a vital cog of the Packers' defense by now. Injuries, however, have sabotaged his first two seasons in the league. Chicago's Matt Forte made him look silly last week after catching a pass in the flat and turning it into a 33-yard gain. With a bum wheel and so much time on the sideline because of injuries, he also lacks the preferred athleticism and experience.

Mulumba, an undrafted rookie, didn't play a snap on defense in the Week 1 game against the 49ers but has been playing more than Perry. Like Neal and Perry, power is the name of his game.

The NFL's media stats site has a category called "net yards over average," which measures a defense's production (or offense's production) with and without a specific player on the field. Teams are rushing for 0.44 yards less per carry with Mulumba on the field and 0.43 less with Perry on the field. On the other hand, teams are averaging 0.51 yards more per rush with Neal on the field.

"I feel good about where they are, I feel good about the preparation," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "I know they're going to play hard and physical and lay it on the line with their brothers. We may have some growing pains here and there with these young kids playing this position but it is what it is. They're going to try to lay it on the line for the organization, for each other, and play as hard as they can."

Matthews, playing 74 of 81 snaps, was dominant in the first game and is the total package at outside linebacker. Beyond talent and tenacity, what makes Matthews such a phenomenal player is his feel for the game. Some of that feel is natural; some of it is a byproduct of five years working under Greene.

That's what the others don't have, as neither Perry, Neal and Mulumba are relative neophytes to the position.

Perry, who played 57 snaps in Week 1, has played in just 17 career games and is still learning how to play linebacker — a process slowed for a player who has not been a full participant at practice since Week 6. While he's shown some big-play potential, Greene said it was Perry's lack of vision that led to Forte's big catch-and-run last week. Neal, who played 31 snaps in Week 1, until this year had spent his entire career facemask to facemask with an opposing offensive lineman. He hasn't been a full participant at practice since Week 13. Mulumba, like Perry, was a 4-3 defensive end in college.

That lack of linebacker experience is a big deal against the 49ers, with the read-option and Kaepernick's scrambling ability putting a lot of stress on Greene's players.

"Obviously, you have to expand your vision and not have tunnel vision," Greene said. "I'm sure we're going to take our lumps in there. That's part of growing in the position and getting better."

The read-option wasn't a factor in the first game, when the Packers smothered the 49ers' running game. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, knowing it was just one of 16 games, might have kept Kaepernick under wraps. After the 49ers in Week 1 and the Redskins in Week 2, the Packers didn't see more than a few snaps of read-option the rest of the season.

"You hope there's some recall," Capers said. "We're playing with some different people. Our two outside guys coming into the season, we thought Mike Neal would be kind of a spot guy out there, and he's been playing full time. You know, nobody knew anything about Andy Mulumba at that point in time."


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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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