The Green Bay Packers have won three of four games without injured outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
That counts for progress from 2010, when he missed the final quarter of a close game at Washington and the entire game the following week at home against Miami, and the Packers lost both times.
It’s looking like Matthews has a decent shot at returning from a pulled hamstring this week at Chicago. But back or not, don’t let the recent 3-1 record without him deceive. The Packers miss Matthews something fierce. It’s as evident as ever they have no shot at the Super Bowl without him.
Last week’s 27-20 win over Detroit was as stark a display of Matthews’ value as any of the games he’s missed. The Packers simply had no pass rush and also missed him against the run.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ safe game plan took advantage of the Lions’ shortage of quality at receiver. Capers enticed the Lions to run against his nickel personnel, slanted his coverages toward Calvin Johnson — Tramon Williams also came through on the snaps he had to handle Johnson alone — and counted on his ascending young defensive backs to handle the rest of the Lions’ weakened receiver corps in whatever match-ups remained.
It worked. Johnson, the NFL’s dominant receiver, was a non-factor (10 catches but only an 11.8-yard average and long of 20 yards). Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford turned the game with an unforced fumble when the ball slipped from his hands, and the Packers’ secondary made stops when the game’s outcome was determined in the third and fourth quarters.
But the Packers’ pass rush was non-existent. Even taking into account the snowy conditions that favor pass blockers and Capers’ restrained game plan (10 blitzes on 47 dropbacks), the lack of pressure on Stafford was startling.
The Packers had one sack, and that was when the ball slipped from Stafford’s hand, so it wasn’t like someone made the play. The game’s official statistics and video analysis by ProFootballFocus.com had the Packers with two hits on Stafford; a Press-Gazette viewing of the TV feed identified only one.
Pressures are more subjective, but the Press-Gazette saw seven clear pressures and several other borderline ones. Stafford scrambled once. Some of his throws came off quick drops when the rush had no chance, but on pass after pass, Stafford had plenty of room to set his feet and throw without someone in his face or closing fast.
Looking back at the other three games without Matthews, the Packers’ pass rush was surprisingly strong in the first, at Detroit on Nov. 18. They had five sacks (two by outside linebacker Erik Walden, one each by outside linebacker Dezman Moses, cornerback Davon House and safety Morgan Burnett) and seven quarterback hits in a 24-20 win. But a notable factor was Lions left tackle Jeff Backus leaving the game in the second quarter because of a hamstring injury. Moses badly outplayed backup Riley Reiff, which led to all kinds of breakdowns and help in pass protection.
But the more the Packers have played without Matthews, the less effectively Walden, Moses and Frank Zombo have played.
The following week at the New York Giants, the Packers had one sack and two hits on quarterback Eli Manning in a humbling 38-10 loss. Then against the Minnesota Vikings two weeks ago, the Packers had no sacks and four hits on quarterback Christian Ponder in a 23-14 win.
So in the last three games, that’s two sacks, including one unforced when the ball slipped from the quarterback’s hand while he was trying to throw, and eight quarterback hits.
When Matthews is on the field, Walden, Moses and Zombo are better players. They share playing time, so they’re fresh and provide different looks for offensive linemen. Far more importantly, Matthews draws the bulk of the pass-protection attention, which gives them more favorable match-ups.
And even with the added attention, Matthews makes plays. According to ProFootballFocus, though Matthews has missed four games he still is tied for No. 10 in the NFL in combined sacks and hits with 19.
So the best team the Packers played without Matthews, the Giants, shredded their defense for 38 points and 390 yards. The Giants ran (147 yards rushing, 4.7 yards a carry) and threw (249 yards passing, 8.3 yards per attempt) equally well.
The Packers’ young secondary was good enough to compensate in both wins over Detroit and against a Vikings team playing without injured receiver Percy Harvin, its only playmaker to complement halfback Adrian Peterson. But 3-1 or not, this is nowhere near the same defense without its best player.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.