It was announced Thursday that Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is on track to play Sunday against Philadelphia as he returns from thumb surgery. This is exactly the boost this team needs right now, having lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers during Monday night's defeat to Chicago. One might make the argument that the Packers have been hit harder than any team in the NFL by injuries in 2013.
While his hand usage and ability to “grab cloth” -- one of Matthews' many strengths -- could be limited because of the thumb, he remains one of the truly elite defenders in this league. Matthews is a superb edge pass-rusher with exceptional get-off, hand usage, jolt upon impact, hustle and a fantastic ability to get low, with great knee bend to get under the pads of opposing offensive tackles. Matthews also has a wide variety of pass-rush moves and a fantastic closing burst when he nears his target.
Green Bay averages exactly 3 sacks per game on the season, but the Packers got to Chicago quarterback Josh McCown just once Monday night. The Bears’ offense is designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, but the lack of edge pass rush was glaring against Chicago with Matthews and Nick Perry both out of the lineup. Perry’s return from a foot injury isn’t certain, and he has been an up-and-down player since being drafted in the first round in 2012, but he has certainly improved. Mike Neal is a unique player and has seen a lot of playing time with Matthews and Perry out of the lineup. Mike Daniels has also been a pleasant surprise as a pass-rusher. Neal, a defensive lineman by trade, has been used a great deal as an outside linebacker in Green Bay’s 3-4 scheme as well as being a bit of a “Joker” defender for Dom Capers, lining up in many different spots of the defense. Neal has been promising in this role as a pass-rusher and against the run. He has been a very pleasant surprise, but Neal isn’t a true No. 1 pass-rusher -- which is exactly what Matthews is. Opposing offenses must now adjust their protection schemes around the threat of Matthews, which should free up the rest of Green Bay’s pass rush.
Matthews is also very solid against the run, which will be very important this week against Philadelphia and the explosive LeSean McCoy. Even though Nick Foles threw seven touchdown passes last week, the key to Chip Kelly’s offense is McCoy and the running game. McCoy is one of the best outside runners in the league today, and securing the edge and funneling him to the middle of the field will be extremely important for Green Bay on Sunday.
The Eagles feature one of the league’s best running games, but their pass protection has been suspect at times this season -- although that was not the case in Oakland in Week 9, when everything went right for Philadelphia’s offense. Matthews will be squaring off against Jason Peters on the offense’s left side, or against the Eagles’ first-round pick this year, Lane Johnson, at right tackle. Peters has returned from an Achilles injury and has been his usual outstanding self in protection, while Johnson’s pass protection has been very disappointing. Look for Matthews to rush most often from the left outside-linebacker spot, where he could give the highly touted rookie fits, particularly with his great bull rush. Getting Matthews back this week is exactly what the Packers need to help weather the storm while Rodgers is sidelined.