Packers grades: Look for an infusion of new blood at linebacker
Sixth in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series with 2018 grades.
GREEN BAY - A position group expected to make plays for the Green Bay Packers didn’t make enough of them in 2018, with a lack of consistent pass rush and holes in coverage marring the linebacker performance in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s first year calling plays.
Clay Matthews posted a career-low sack total, Nick Perry ended another season on injured reserve and Pettine wound up using safeties — including some signed late in the year — to fill needs at inside linebacker. This is a group that will likely see an infusion of new blood.
Kyler Fackrell had a breakout campaign in his third season. He recorded double-digit sacks for the first time and was sure in pass-coverage assignments. Matthews played 16 games for the first time since 2015 and was stout in the run game.
In the middle, Blake Martinez was once again a sure tackler in playing every game and Antonio Morrison, a late acquisition in training camp, was solid when called upon. Undrafted rookie James Crawford was one of the team’s more reliable special teams players.
The linebackers were just “there” in 2018, with Pettine having to scheme around their pass rush and coverage issues. There just weren’t enough impact plays from an impact position group. Fackrell, Martinez, Matthews and Reggie Gilbert combined for 21½ of the team’s 44 sacks, but none consistently got to the quarterback. Perry was a non-factor before ending the year on injured reserve.
As a group, only Matthews and Perry forced a fumble. No linebacker had an interception and Martinez and Perry tied for the position group lead with three passes defensed. Third-round pick Oren Burks began the year slowly with a shoulder injury and never really found himself.
Quite simply, a difference-making pass rusher. With the return of Pettine, multiple players are going to be used in creating pressure. But the Packers desperately lack a player who can win one-on-one consistently against tackles.
Even if Fackrell improves, Perry is retained and Matthews re-signed — none can be left to just win on their own. Finding that type of pass rusher can open things up for not just those players, but Pettine’s scheme as a whole.
Blake Martinez: The linchpin of an injury-ravaged defense, played through an ankle injury to complete all 16 games and make 144 total tackles. Also had a career-high five sacks. Slipped in pass coverage, however, and didn’t cause any turnovers. Grade: B
Kyler Fackrell: Third-year player had 10½ sacks, seventh-best among all linebackers in the NFL and far and away the team leader. Trusted in red-zone coverage situations and willing in the run game. Pass rush disappeared at times. Grade: B
Antonio Morrison: Hard hitter was usually assignment sound in run situations and special teams. Reliable when called upon in a matchup-based role that saw him on the sideline quite a bit in pass situations. Grade: C+
Clay Matthews: Despite a career-low 3½ sacks while playing 16 games for the first time since 2015, Matthews was around the quarterback and led the team in quarterback hits. He also improved in the run game and tackling and was one of the few reliable options at linebacker for the Packers all season. Grade: C+
Reggie Gilbert: Despite an opportunity for more playing time due to injuries, the second-year pro played in all 16 games but produced just 2½ sacks. Too often disappeared on the field. Grade: D
Nick Perry: Played nine games but had just 1½ sacks and one forced fumble before his season ended on injured reserve. The full sack came in Week 1, and Perry had seven games without reaching the quarterback. Grade: D
Oren Burks: A shoulder injury slowed his progress coming out of the preseason, but despite playing offenses that featured tight ends and running backs in the pass, Burks was often left on the sideline (122 defensive snaps). Grade: D
James Crawford: Undrafted rookie played just one snap on defense, but appeared in every game and played 70 percent of the snaps on special teams. Grade: C
Kendall Donnerson: Signed to the active roster Dec. 4, the seventh-round pick out of Southeast Missouri State did not appear on the field. Grade: Incomplete
Jake Ryan: Inside linebacker blew a knee in training camp and missed the entire 2018 season while on injured reserve. Grade: Incomplete