The Green Bay Packers will be without two of their defensive starters for at least this week’s game against the Baltimore Ravens. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews reportedly had successful surgery on his broken thumb and will be out at least a month, probably longer. Inside linebacker Brad Jones suffered a hamstring injury and was ruled out of this week’s game on Wednesday.
Losing Matthews is a huge blow to the Packers and their pass rush. Replacing him is impossible and I need not break down the many reasons why. He is the team’s best defensive player and the heartbeat of that side of the ball.
In Jones, the Packers are losing yet another solid contributor to their defense. Jones stepped last season amidst a few injuries and has maintained his starting role along side of AJ Hawk. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones ended up with a +7.3 overall rating in 2012 and scored equally well in both pass and run defense with a +4.6. So far in 2013, Jones has a +3.9 rating. While not stellar, Jones has been OK in pass coverage, an area that Packers linebackers have lacked in. Now Green Bay is faced with trying to plug these two holes.
Mike Neal will assume one of the outside linebacker spots opposite Nick Perry. ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde ran an interesting piece on Neal’s transformation to OLB. Perry had success coming off of the right side and so Neal could line up left. Both had a decent showing against Detroit and any similar production would come in very handy at Baltimore.
At middle linebacker, the Packers went from thin to thinner on Sunday. After Jones was lost, Robert Francois filled in. Francois then suffered a torn Achilles and has already been placed on season-ending injured reserve. Francois was replaced by Jamari Lattimore. Lattimore will likely remain with the first unit in the team’s base 3-4 defense.
Behind these incumbents, the Packers will rely on their young and unproven depth to step in and contribute, where needed. Sixth round draft pick Nate Palmer, seventh rounder Sam Barrington and undrafted free agent Andy Mulumba will all be asked to support the current starting cast.
Palmer has played a total of one snap on special teams in week three against the Cincinnati Bengals. Mulumba has played a total of 31 snaps over three games and has not made any type of impact. Barrington has also only been on special teams thus far this season, although a more regular contributor. Still, I doubt that the Packers expected this seventh rounder out of Illinois State to potentially become a bigger part of the team’s defense in 2013.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy tends to take a very conservative approach to inserting untested young guys in the lineup and for good reason. After starting off with a few outstanding runs against the Bengals, rookie running back Johnathan Franklin fumbled on his last carry of the game, which lead to a turnover and touchdown that put Cincinnati ahead for good. Say what you will about the play call, the offensive line or whatever other external factor there was, but Franklin fumbled. He had another this past weekend. For this reason, McCarthy likes to ease his youth into regular playing time and when a potential misstep is less likely to hurt the team.
Palmer, Barrington and Mulumba will all remain active on game days while the team awaits the returns of Jones and Matthews, but just how much playing time each will see is unknown. This is assuming that Mulumba’s absence from practice this week isn’t an indication that he will also miss time.
If Neal and Perry are healthy and productive, they may play every snap. In that scenario, it would be a bit of a luxury if the young guys can get any kind of significant reps because it likely means the game is in hand in Green Bay’s favor. The other side of the coin is that Neal or Perry are hurt and suddenly the Packers are paper thin at linebacker.
Earlier this week, Green Bay added even more young depth as they promoted cornerback James Nixon from the practice squad and signed cornerback Jumal Rolle to fill Nixon’s spot. This could be an indication that the Packers intend to find some of that lost production at linebacker from their defensive backfield. We could see quite a bit of the team’s nickel package if that theory holds true.
If Green Bay is going to emerge from these next six games with minimal damage and a winning record, these young guys are all going to have to play a role. It’s times like this when some current starters took that next step. Tramon Williams is a prime example. Is the next Tramon among this crop?
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: