Packers OLBs Clay Matthews, Nick Perry eager for healthy sack competition
GREEN BAY – Their goal isn’t merely reaching the quarterback. They want to get there first. Each snap is a race, friendly competition between pillars of the Green Bay Packers' pass rush.
On the line: bragging rights.
They can be that good – when they sack the quarterback, not if – when healthy. The Packers pumped money into their edge rush for a reason. In Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, they have a pair of outside linebackers averaging $25.2 million per year.
Only the New York Giants pay their top two edge rushers more, with Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul earning a combined $32.5 million annually.
The Packers’ duo earned that money in the past. Matthews is poised to become the official career sacks leader in franchise history this fall, just two from passing Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. It was Perry who had more sacks last season, his career-high 11 leading the team in 2016, trivia Matthews won’t forget.
“That was just something that he knew,” Perry said, cracking a smile at his locker, “and he had to bow down to. He’s super competitive – same as me. We always go back and forth on that kind of stuff. That’s competitive nature with us.”
Yes, their competition is real. It needs to be this season, and not just with sacks.
The most important stat for Matthews and Perry in 2016 might be games played.
They never have made it through all 16 games in the same season. After his rookie year, the only times Matthews made it through a full season were 2014 and 2015, when he was predominantly an inside linebacker. The most Perry has played in a season is 15.
Their availability is important, because when Matthews and Perry are on the field together, there is potential for the Packers to have one of the NFL’s fiercest edge rushes.
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The Packers' remaining outside linebacker depth chart has combined for six sacks in four NFL seasons.
“They expect us to be out there each and every week,” Matthews said. “As I’ve said before, our position is pretty volatile, and unfortunately we’ve had a few injuries throughout our careers. But in focusing on that, we both feel real good. We feel comfortable with where we’re at, where we came into camp, and our overall health right now.
“But they’re counting on us to get after the quarterback. Our playing time is going to be up there as far as how it was earlier in my career, and I’m sure with Nick’s as well. We’re looking forward to it, though.
“We expect big things this year.”
It is a volatile position. On the edge, 250-pound speed rushers crash into 320-pound offensive tackles like waves against rocks. It’s no coincidence Matthews’ healthiest seasons since his rookie year came at inside linebacker, safely removed from the trenches.
Early in his career, Matthews rarely left the field. As injuries slowly eroded him, the Packers became more strategic with his snaps on the edge. In his three seasons at outside linebacker since 2012, Matthews played 55.6 percent of the snaps. He led outside linebackers in snaps only once in the three seasons, missing 13 games total.
Injuries also limited Perry’s playing time early in his career. For the first time last season, Perry played more than half the defensive snaps. Before 2016, Perry played 30 percent in his first four seasons.
With less depth, the Packers might need Matthews and Perry to exceed 70 percent of snaps this season. It's a role they were drafted to play. Both were picked in the first round, and with it came demanding expectations.
But then the Packers are hanging much of their season’s aspiration on asking Matthews and Perry to do something they’ve rarely shown in the past.
“How many snaps they play,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “will depend on if they can stay healthy. They’ll play a lot of snaps, I would think.”
Capers said the Packers are preparing for the possibility of losing Matthews and Perry for an extended period. That’s what teams do in camp: plot emergency contingencies.
So Kyler Fackrell and Jayrone Elliott will undergo a thorough examination over the next month, eliminating any unpleasant surprises come September.
Linebackers coach Winston Moss said he’s pleased with Elliott’s “physicality” early in camp. Elliott is still raw entering his fourth NFL season, refining his pass-rush skills, his identity. But his speed off the edge is undeniable.
As for Fackrell, Moss said, the second-year linebacker needs to be less mechanical. He calls Fackrell a "cerebral" player, always thinking on the field.
But thinking, instead of reacting, can slow down a pass rusher.
“Our position is about making plays," Moss said. "In talking about that, we’d like him to play with some more aggression, play with some more risk taking, and look to be more disruptive as to looking to be more assignment. But both of those guys for the most part have gotten off to solid starts.
"Elliott a real good start. Fackrell, in some cases assignment-wise are real good, but I’m looking more for the impact in his play.”
The Packers hope Fackrell and Elliott develop enough to replace some of the depth they lost this offseason when Julius Peppers and Datone Jones departed in free agency. It will be a lot to ask, so the reality at outside linebacker likely shifts this fall.
Gone are the breathers, the constant mid-game sideline trips. Up is the snap count. If they can play, Matthews and Perry are going to play a lot.
Perry said he’s looking forward to more snaps.
“There’s one thing that’s for certain,” Perry said. “The more opportunities, the better your chances are. Being out there longer doesn’t really say that you’re not going to do good. Being out there more is probably going to say that you’ll probably make more plays. I definitely felt that if I would have played more last year, I definitely would have made a lot more plays.
“That just comes with the territory and knowing that those opportunities to make big plays, they don’t come as much as you want them to. You get in games, and there’s a play that you might need to take a blow, and the next play might have been that play. Someone else comes in and steals the sack that you’ve been setting things up for."
There will be less stealing this season if Matthews and Perry stay healthy. Still the same competition.
First one to the quarterback wins.