The Green Bay Packers gambled that they would be able to fix their two major weak spots on defense without adding any significant players through the draft or free agency.
At this point, it looks like General Manager Ted Thompson batted .500.
The development of young cornerbacks Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee — and the addition of undrafted rookie Sam Shields — has helped solidify what looked like a shaky position, what with starting cornerback Al Harris’ return from last season’s knee injury still in question.
But at outside linebacker, things aren’t much clearer than they were when training camp opened nearly three weeks ago.
The hamstring injury that has sidelined second-year star Clay Matthews since the Aug. 7 Family Night scrimmage has magnified the problem that some thought might prevent the Packers from taking the next step from playoff participant to Super Bowl contender. Without Matthews in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns, the remaining contingent of outside linebackers barely got a hand on the Browns’ quarterbacks. Only undrafted rookie Frank Zombo was credited with a quarterback hit.
In terms of a bona fide pass rush, the Packers got very little out of either Brad Jones or Brady Poppinga, who started at left and right outside spots, respectively, or from Brandon Chillar, the converted inside linebacker who actually got the most reps of the three despite not starting.
To be sure, the Browns used an abundance of three-stop drops and short throws, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers used a vanilla game plan, but the lack of a pass rush might be cause for concern.
“I don’t get into strategy with Dom, but I am not overly concerned about the defense,” Thompson said Tuesday. “We’re trying to get everybody to the starting gate and trying to get everybody back and healthy and get our rotations down and all that sort of thing.”
Perhaps more than anything, that statement illustrates Matthews’ importance. Last season as a rookie, he was the only consistent pass rusher the Packers had from the outside linebacker spot. He had a team-high 10 sacks and was selected as a first alternate to the Pro Bowl even after he missed the bulk of training camp and was limited early in the season because of a hamstring injury. He’s battling the same injury now and said Tuesday that he hopes to return in time for the Sept. 2 preseason finale at Kansas City but if not, he had no doubt he would play Week 1 at Philadelphia.
From his vantage point on the sideline on Saturday, Matthews said he didn’t see anything to be overly concerned about in terms of the lack of pass rush.
“First off, they were doing a lot of quick passes,” Matthews said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to do a better job of getting pressure, and that falls on everyone really. It’s not just the outside linebackers or the D-linemen. It’s the team collectively. But at the same time, we can’t rely on the blitz to always bail us out.”
When the Packers moved Chillar outside early in camp, it seemed like a reasonable solution to the lack of a pass rush. But the fact that Chillar didn’t even start against the Browns was a curious move.
“Don’t read too much into that because we like the competition that we have there,” Capers said. “Obviously, the last seven games (of last season), Clay and Brad started. I think Brad has made an awful lot of progress. Where he is now compared to this time last year, he’s a much improved player. Brandon, we’re going to continue to try to give him (more reps). He got more reps in the game because we want to give him more opportunity to get out there and get comfortable.”
In practice this week, Chillar has indeed gotten more reps at the right outside spot with the starters than anyone else. His chances of starting alongside Matthews seem at least as good as anyone else’s. Poppinga and Jones remain in the Packers’ plans, but Zombo is a wild card. He has benefited for the work he’s received while Matthews and former practice-squader Cyril Obiozor have been out with injuries.
“With Clay not being out there — Clay and (defensive end) Cullen (Jenkins) are two of our biggest threats to beat people one on one — is it a concern?” Capers said. “I would say no. I think we’ll be OK with the pass rush. I really do.”