Elephant linebackers give defense options
A bold move such as this would have been difficult for the Green Bay Packers to pull off a year ago at this time.
Clay Matthews? At inside linebacker? Even if the four-time Pro Bowler hadn't missed five games with a broken thumb, there simply weren't enough healthy options available on the outside to allow Matthews the freedom to play elsewhere.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers hasn't needed to worry about that this season. The re-signing of Mike Neal and addition of Julius Peppers helped stockpile the position, but the overall health of the group has been imperative for its success.
It wasn't until Nick Perry's shoulder flared up this week that there's even been a question whether the defense would have its full assortment of hybrid rushers ready on game day.
It's been that surplus of elephant linebackers that's afforded the defense versatility it hasn't had during Capers' five years as coordinator. Just as the organization hoped for early in the offseason program.
"I think every year we've increased our depth at the outside linebacker position," Capers said. "We have more options there now, which had we not had those it would've been really hard to do what we did with Clay."
The Packers would've done anything for this kind of depth last year when rookie linebackers Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer were forced into five starts and nearly 500 combined defensive snaps with Matthews and Perry (five games, foot) missing extended time.
Jayrone Elliott (hamstring) has been the only outside linebacker to miss a game due to injury this year, but even when he's been healthy, the undrafted rookie has played only 18 snaps on defense because of the health of the veteran core.
Worrying less about availability, Capers has been able to dig deeper into his playbook. The defense busted out the linebacker-centric NASCAR dime package earlier this season and took things to another level when it debuted Matthews at inside linebacker coming out of the bye week.
Their most recent package, a quasi-dime package in which Matthews overloads next to another outside linebacker, doesn't even have a name, but it created plenty of confusion in Sunday's 53-20 win over Philadelphia.
Capers got creative in the third quarter of the blowout when he dropped Matthews and Peppers into coverage. The look rattled Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez, who threw an errant pass directly to Peppers, who returned it for a 52-yard touchdown.
It might have been hard for Capers to make that call last year when rotating personnel turned things stale.
"It's a week-to-week thing, the game plan," said Peppers, who has yet to miss a practice. "Adjustments can be made to the defense each and every week. We make up defenses sometimes that we haven't even run. We might have something in this week that we haven't run all season. Each week, adjustments get made to the defense."
Peppers, who has 31 tackles and five sacks, occasionally dropped back in fire-zone packages during his time in Chicago and Carolina, but nothing like this. It's that ability to rush from anywhere on the defensive front and do the unexpected that drew him to Green Bay in the first place.
The Packers began playing with the idea of creating hybrid rushers last year when they transitioned Neal, then a 294-pound defensive lineman, to a two-point stance. Struggling to maintain weight and stay healthy, the former second-round pick played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his career after the switch.
The Packers haven't needed to lean on him as heavily as last year when he played most of his 730 defensive snaps standing up, but the production they've received from his rotation with Perry (41 tackles, six sacks) was one of the reasons coaches felt comfortable shifting Matthews inside.
The two rushers seem to complement each other pretty well. While Neal seems to be the more natural pass-rusher, Perry arguably has been the best outside linebacker against the run.
That depth is why the Packers feel relatively calm despite Perry and Elliott being listed as questionable Sunday against Minnesota. Once their statuses are determined after today's final run-through, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said his team is ready to adjust to any circumstance.
If it results in Neal getting more work, Capers is confident he'll respond like he did against the Eagles when he had a first-quarter sack of Sanchez.
"We felt like playing him inside where he had to take on all of those 300-some-pound linemen all the time, he wasn't ever going to make it through the season," said Capers of Neal, who has 23 tackles and three sacks. "Putting him outside, you see he's been able to stay much healthier out there than he has with the interior linemen."
If Perry can't go, there's a chance Matthews could start back outside. There's also a threat he'll line up there regardless. That element of surprise is part of the fun for Matthews, who sees his current responsibility as a "new position every week."
It's hard to argue with his production. Matthews has 16 tackles and two sacks since agreeing to the shift, nearly matching his output from the first eight games (18 tackles, 2½ sacks) combined.
Players say there's plenty of unscouted looks ahead. It all plays into Capers' plan to keep opposing offenses guessing.
"When you have guys that are interchangeable at a position like the elephant outside linebacker position, it makes it good because we all can really do basically everything," Peppers said. "We all can rush, we all can drop. We all can get down in the three-technique. We all can play standing up. It gives us the ability to be a little more diverse in everything we're doing."
The Packers made it their mission this offseason to create an environment in which the best 11 players play. The early struggles of Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore in the inside spot next to A.J. Hawk put that philosophy to the test in the first half.
As promised, the coaching staff came out of the bye week with a plan that has changed the course of the season.
Life is easy when you're scoring 50 points a game, but that won't always be the case. Even if the Vikings (4-6) don't provide an adequate test, it's a near certainty the defense will encounter more adversity before the season is over.
The only difference this year is the Packers seem to have personnel needed to adjust to it.
"The more playmakers you can get on the field, the better the defense you are," cornerback Casey Hayward said. "If you have five of your best players in the secondary, why not play them? If four of your linebackers are the best 11, why not play them? Scheme-wise and personnel-wise, I think we're doing a great job."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod