Healthy Perry making most of limited reps

Weston Hodkiewicz
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It was easy to lose Nick Perry in the flurry of sacks and hits the Green Bay Packers delivered to Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder a week ago.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry (53) zeroes in on quarterback Christian Ponder (7) against the Minnesota Vikings during Thursday night's game at Lambeau Field.

There were no choreographed dances or manufactured sack celebrations. In what teammate Clay Matthews referred to as "probably the quietest two-sack game you'll see," Perry contained his excitement to a couple beats of his chest and a few hand claps.

The former first-round pick doesn't need anything elaborate. Perry expects to be around the quarterback. It's why the Packers drafted the former USC defensive end and converted him to an outside linebacker a little more than two years ago.

Sure, Perry hasn't been Matthews 2.0, but he's been effective when healthy. He muscled through a significant foot injury most of last season, which came after wrist surgery derailed his rookie campaign.

Health hasn't stood in Perry's way this season, but opportunity has been more difficult to secure. He's seeing 10 fewer snaps per game in the wake of Julius Peppers' addition and Mike Neal's return.

Perry is fine with the rotation, though. He knew there were going to be changes with Dom Capers' 3-4 defense this season. Like everyone, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound linebacker has done his best to adapt.

"At the end of the day, they make the decisions. We roll with it," said Perry, who has 11 tackles and two sacks in five games. "So far, it's been good. I can't complain. I'm sure all the other players can't complain either. Right now, we're just attacking offenses like we know how.

"We all have talent. We all can play. It's just a matter of us going out and playing (our guts) out."

There were some questions about where Perry stood in the defensive plans after he played only 11 snaps in the Packers' 36-16 loss to Seattle in last month's opener.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry (53) celebrates his sack of quarterback Christian Ponder against the Minnesota Vikings during Thursday night's game at Lambeau Field.

It was a drastic shift from his first two seasons when he started 11 of his first 17 NFL games and averaged 33.4 defensive snaps per game. After Matthews and Peppers combined for 125 plays, Capers agreed that wasn't nearly enough work for Perry and Neal.

Since, Perry's reps have steadily increased. He played 21 snaps against the New York Jets, 24 against Detroit, 26 against Chicago and 32 in last week's 42-10 rout of the Vikings.

Capers has made a concerted effort to strike a balance between Matthews and Peppers and the rotation of Perry and Neal. Not only to level the playing field, but also to keep all four of his outside rushers healthy for the long haul.

They seem to be onto something early on. Through five games, the Packers' outside linebackers have generated 18 hits on the quarterback, according to Pro Football Focus.

That compares to 26 all of last season when Matthews (broken thumb) and Perry (foot) missed 10 combined games due to injury, and rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer were called into action.

"We've tried to look at our four guys we have in the rotation and tried to have kind of a rep count," Capers said. "I think it keeps those guys fresher. I think when you look at the big picture as we move through the season that it'll enable us to be better because those guys should be improving."

Perry has noticed the difference. Nothing against small-school rookies like Mulumba or Palmer, but Peppers' presence changes an entire defense. The extra depth even has Perry playing on kickoff coverage units for the first time in his NFL career.

This was the whole basis of the Packers' offseason renovations. Capers and coach Mike McCarthy frequently talked about installing elephant defenders to better utilize the athleticism of converted 4-3 defensive ends like Neal and Perry.

Perry likes the direction, but doesn't feel his job description has changed all that much. He's still an outside linebacker even after starting with his hand in the dirt at USC.

Two years into Capers' system, Perry considers himself "a stand-up guy."

"I've been comfortable," Perry said. "It's just a matter of me getting an opportunity to go out there more often. We're going to play. We're playing to win, so whatever that takes. I'm here to win with these guys."

One good sign for the third-year linebacker was his first-quarter sack of Ponder from the left side on a third down. It was his first sack from that spot since a 30-27 loss to Indianapolis on Oct. 7, 2012. His last five sacks had come from the right side.

Perry appeared to be on the verge of a breakout around this time last year. After Matthews broke his thumb against Detroit, Perry registered three of his four sacks over two games before breaking his foot against Baltimore on Oct. 13, 2013.

He's missed a few practices when his wrist flares up, but mostly been able to adhere to his motto coming into the season.

Stay healthy. Stay humble. Stay hungry.

"I think Nick is just happy to be happy and playing," Capers said. "Since he's been here, he's always had some injury issues. We just knock on wood to keep him healthy. There's no question in my mind that if he gives you 25, 30 plays that they're going to be good plays and he's excited about it."

The snaps will vary as long as Matthews and Peppers are on the field. Perry has no control over that. His long-term goal is to not only play in all 16 games, but also make an impact over the course of a full season.

The main thing is the Packers' pass rush is producing. The defense has combined for 36 combined sacks and quarterback hits this season, good for sixth in the NFL.

There's still no denying the importance of this year for Perry. He's signed through 2015, but the Packers will have to determine this offseason whether they want to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

Right now, Perry is concentrated on his role. If the opportunities continue to expand, he hopes to bring home another pair of sacks.

Just like he quietly did against the Vikings.

"It was a good day. It was a good day," Perry said with a smile. "More to come."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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