In four games without their defensive star, the Packers totaled just seven sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Five of those sacks and 10 of the hits came in one game: the first one Matthews missed against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 18. In one of those games, against Minnesota on Dec. 2, they failed to record a single sack.
With Matthews expected to miss the next month because of the broken right thumb he sustained in Sunday’s win over the Lions, the Packers must find a way to maintain their pass rush in his absence.
Matthews, who had 13½ sacks in 12 games last season, broke his thumb on his third-quarter sack of Matthew Stafford on Sunday.
“Clay’s one of those guys who’s going to make two or three plays a game,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday. “You’ve seen every game this year, there’s been two of three plays that he makes.”
Matthews, who also missed half of the Week 3 game at Cincinnati because of a hamstring injury, has a team-high three sacks this season.
When Matthews went down last season, Perry already had been lost for the season to a wrist injury, and the idea of moving Neal from defensive end to outside linebacker had not been hatched. The week after Matthews’ injury, the Packers’ starting outside linebackers were Dezman Moses and Erik Walden -- neither of whom are with the Packers anymore.
Neal’s adaptation to his new position happened so fast that he started ahead of Perry on Sunday against the Lions and played the best game of his four-year career, with six tackles and a sack. Perry, the Packers’ first-round pick in 2012, responded to his demotion with the first two-sack game of his young career.
“The one encouraging thing to me is, I think Mike Neal has made really good strides,” Capers said. “I think you saw him play his best game yesterday. I think you saw Nick Perry play his best game yesterday. And that’s the nature of this business.”
Behind Neal (who played 45 snaps against the Lions) and Perry (39 snaps), the Packers’ only other outside linebackers are Andy Mulumba, an undrafted rookie who played 17 snaps against the Lions, and Nate Palmer, a sixth-round pick who was inactive.
When Matthews returned from his hamstring injury last season, the Packers’ pass rush returned, posting 12 sacks over the final three regular-season games. Matthews had four of those.
This time around, it’s worth wondering how effective Matthews will be upon his return, because he might have to wear a large protective club-like cast. Packers safety Morgan Burnett played with one for part of the 2011 season to protect his fractured right hand but didn’t miss a game. Former Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins also used one for part of the 2010 season. Neither had surgery.
“What position do they play, that definitely factors in,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said when asked how effective a player can be with a club cast. “Can they play a club? At what point in the rehab or the injury can you play with the club?”
The Packers also lost backup inside linebacker Robert Francois for the season to a torn Achilles tendon against the Lions. Francois had replaced starter Brad Jones, who left the game with a hamstring injury. But the Packers must feel good about Jones’ situation because they signed a cornerback, practice squad player James Nixon, to replace Francois on the active roster on Monday.