GREEN BAY - When the Green Bay Packers take the field Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings, they may be playing with only three outside linebackers with full use of both arms.
The rest either will be on the inactive list or trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Over the past eight games, Clay Matthews has been on the injury report with either a hamstring pull or a shoulder sprain. The former caused him to miss three games, but he has tried to play through the latter and the results have been about what you expect from someone playing with one arm.
In his past five games, one after he returned from the hamstring injury and four in which he played through the shoulder injury suffered against Philadelphia on Nov. 28, he has five solo tackles, two assists and a sack. In three of those games, he has not shown up at all on the stat sheet.
“I certainly appreciate Clay going out there, understanding the importance of each and every one of these games, OK?” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “And Clay's a guy, he's going to communicate with you where he is on things, and it's our job as coaches to try and make sure that we're utilizing him based on where he is and what he can do.
“That's what we're trying to do. But I think he's getting better. I think he's headed in the right direction.”
It’s debatable whether the Packers have gotten enough out of Matthews to warrant exposing him to weekly physical contact when they could have been keeping him inactive so his shoulder would be stronger for the stretch run.
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Capers has limited him to playing as a pass rusher in the dime package. He played 29 snaps against Houston, 24 against Seattle and 29 against Chicago, which all together account for 40% of the defensive snaps in those games. Last year, Matthews played in 96.8% of the regular-season defensive snaps.
When pushed on why the Packers have continued to use Matthews despite very little production, linebackers coach Winston Moss answered honestly. The potential of him making one big play, like the strip sack Peppers had to start the third quarter against the Bears, is enough to put him on the field.
“It’s very easy to sit here and either critique or say that he hasn’t done anything based upon the opportunities he’s gotten so far,” Moss said. “Let’s say he goes out this Saturday – with the anticipation you guys (reporters) are saying one thing – and he goes out and makes one game-changing play…”
The Packers face a similar dilemma with linebacker Nick Perry, who returned to practice Wednesday with a large padded club on the left hand he injured against Houston. Perry has missed two games and might be able to play against the Vikings, but the Packers have to weigh whether it’s better to have him on the field one-handed than not at all.
“You have limited practice time now,” Capers said when asked how they’ll know what they can get out of Perry. “Nick's obviously worked a day with the club on his hand and we’ll see how well he does with that. We'd certainly like to have both those guys back totally healthy because they're big factors in our defense.”
Perry has played with a club before. He injured his wrist his rookie season and had to wear a cast on it for several weeks. He eventually went on injured reserve and had surgery to repair it.
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The fifth-year linebacker was in the midst of his best season when he got hurt. He ranks sixth on the team with 57 tackles and first in sacks with eight despite missing two games. His play against the run was one of the reasons the Packers were ranked high in that category earlier in the year.
Perry’s hand is probably not going to heal before the Packers are done playing, so the situation is a little different than Matthews’. Resting him isn’t going to result in him getting the club off his hand, so the question is really whether he can be effective enough to join the rotation of Julius Peppers, Datone Jones, Kyler Fackrell and Matthews.
“I think that’s a tough question to ask,” Moss said. “We evaluate that as a staff. I will give my input and Dom and coach and the trainers, doctors – everybody that’s involved with the process, they’re the ones who make the decision and we go with it.”
Yet another decision the Packers have to make is whether to play outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott, who broke the third metacarpal (middle finger) on his left hand against Chicago on Sunday and tried to play with a club. He did not practice Wednesday, but may be cleared to play against the Vikings.
The unfortunate part for the Packers is that Elliott was coming off a game against Seattle in which he had five tackles, including one for loss, and a sack. He was ready to contribute again vs. the Bears, but on the Packers’ first punt he landed awkwardly while trying to make a tackle.
"It was just a freak play," Elliott said. "Maybe it was too cold for me to put my hand on the ground. I just landed on the ground with too much force. It just felt weird.”
If everything stays the same, Peppers and Jones will start outside. If Perry plays, it’s likely he would be used sparingly, perhaps on run downs where he might have a better impact given his brute strength. Matthews may see more time, and if he’s making as much improvement as the coaches say he is, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he starts.
After landing just one sack against the Bears on Sunday, the Packers have to find their pass rush again. The rush they produced against Seattle two weeks ago was good, but against the Bears, quarterback Matt Barkley had all day to throw.
The Vikings have a beat-up offensive line and with so much on the line for the Packers, they’ll need all the help they can get. Whether it comes through the use of one arm or two, they’ll take it.