DEPTH CHART: 2013
UNDER CONTRACT: 2014
Matthews, Perry, Mulumba and Palmer; Hawk, Jones, Aiyewa and Barrington. (Neal and Francois are unrestricted free agents; Lattimore is restricted).
The grade: C. When Matthews broke a thumb during the fourth game of the season, the defense never was the same. When he was out for the playoff game against San Francisco, the Packers were at an overwhelming disadvantage at every linebacker position.
Hawk ended his two-year drought without a turnover-producing play and his intangibles are off the charts. Still, in this age of athletic quarterbacks and wide receivers masquerading as tight ends, Hawk's athleticism is an ongoing issue. Jones battled injuries for most of the season and wasn't nearly as good as he was when he replaced Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith in 2012 to receive a plump new contract.
Matthews was Matthews when healthy, but he barely played half of the defensive snaps. Without him, there wasn't a single linebacker on the team that worried opposing offensive coordinators. Perry, for the second consecutive year, couldn't stay healthy. He played like a first-rounder at times with three forced fumbles but his problems in space were driven home when he looked foolish after Matt Forte caught a short pass in Week 17. Neal exceeded expectations but too often looked like a lifelong defensive lineman trying to play linebacker. Among the rookies, the undrafted Mulumba was far better than sixth-rounder Palmer because of his physicality against the run.
The good: At least there were some impact plays.
In 2012, all of the linebackers not named Matthews combined for 16 sacks. In 2013, all of the linebackers not named Matthews combined for 20 sacks. Neal and Perry combined for a respectable nine sacks.
Forcing fumbles was a huge emphasis during the offseason. In 2012, all of the linebackers combined to force two fumbles. In 2013, they combined to force 10. Despite the thumb, Matthews matched his career high with three forced fumbles. Of Perry's four sacks, three of them resulted in forced fumbles.
Hawk, who had a career-high five sacks and just missed his career high with 153 tackles as the every-down inside linebacker, had one interception and one forced fumble. He hadn't had an interception since 2010 and had gone without a forced fumble since — unbelievably — 2007. His 13 tackles for losses were as many as he had in 2011 and 2012 combined, according to league stats.
Three of Perry's four sacks resulted in fumbles. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports
The bad: Those big plays notwithstanding, the linebackers weren't good enough on a down-to-down basis. Hawk was third-to-last in ProFootballFocus.com's run-stop percentage, which measures a player's impact tackles. Jones (29th) and Lattimore (28th) were in the middle of the pack of the 56 inside/middle linebackers measured by ProFootballFocus.com. In 2012, Hawk was sixth and Jones 20th.
Jones had 98 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and two passes defensed in 12 starts in 2013. In his 10 starts in 2012, he had 100 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and six passes defensed. Too often, he tackled too high, allowing the ball-carrier to either break free or gain more yardage.
Outside linebacker is supposed to be the marquee position in a 3-4 defense but the Packers just weren't good enough. Coordinator Dom Capers did what he could, especially with Matthews either out of the lineup or struggling with the thumb.
Perry, who broke a foot when sacking Joe Flacco in the fifth game at Baltimore, missed five games and never was the same upon his return. Neal didn't miss a game but, like Perry, barely practiced for a large chunk of the season. With Perry having missed 19 of a possible 36 regular-season games and Neal in his first year at linebacker, that lack of practice time hurt the big-picture "vision" of an offense's intentions that position coach Kevin Greene continually emphasized. In a sport that is defined by explosive athletes trying to make plays in space, Perry and Neal just look out of space.
The surprise: The Packers hoped Neal would shine as a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker. Instead, because of the injuries to Matthews and Perry, Neal essentially became a full-time outside linebacker during the final two-thirds of the season. Neal wasn't always great — his lack of vision had him biting on too many fakes and misdirection plays and he missed more tackles than the rest of the outside linebackers combined — but he tied for third on the team with five sacks, was second with 16 quarterback hits and continually set a hard edge against the run.
The coach says: "I know that until you really start to settle into this position, we're going to have some growing pains. You can't just step into this position and expect to hit on all cylinders. There's a vision here – I know I'm always preaching this vision thing – but most people only have tunnel vision and look at one thing. Here, you're looking at a dozen different things and processing a lot of different things. It takes time to settle in and anticipate things, and then you start to get football awareness about this position, you start anticipating and then you can start making plays. You see that with Clay." — Greene, on a five-player depth chart that included four players in their first or second season at the position.
Questions, questions and more questions.
Who replaces Greene, who resigned last week?
Can the Packers re-sign Neal or will some team give him a shocking, Eric Walden-style contract?
Can Perry stay healthy and take a big step forward, or is heading toward bust status? Asked another way, is he athletic enough if he's not playing on a bum wheel?
Are the Packers stuck with Hawk ($3.5 million salary; $5.1 million cap) and Jones ($3 million salary; $4 million cap) at inside linebacker?
Is Lattimore a viable option after flashing here and there? Can Barrington emerge after missing the second half of the season with an injured hamstring? Do they need to add a more-athletic player to the mix with a prime draft pick?
What is certain is this unit must improve in just about every way imaginable, because the problems ran deeper than Matthews' thumb.
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.