The Green Bay Packers have a Clay Matthews problem.
Matthews is their best pass rusher and indispensable to winning.
But he's also an older player and a pulled hamstring waiting to happen. So as things are, the Packers are prisoners of his precarious leg.
“I've always felt that if you want to be an outstanding defense,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week, “you have to have two or three difference-makers, and a lot of good guys that play their role extremely well and are very efficient. I've always considered Clay a difference-maker.”
The problem short term is that Matthews’ hamstring makes him unreliable for the rest of this season. It looks like he’s returning this week after missing three games, but he could aggravate the injury at any time and be back on the sidelines. That would leave the Packers where they are now: a defense that has allowed 33 points, 31 points and 47 points and been unable to get a key stop in their last three games with Matthews watching in warm-up gear.
The problem long term is that Matthews turned 30 last May. Injuries and age are a bad mix even for the most talented of players. He’s had the hamstring issues since his rookie season, so they’re not going away, and cumulatively they could hasten his decline. Meanwhile, general manager Ted Thompson has failed to draft a young pass rusher who’s likely to mitigate the enormous damage if Matthews continues to miss games in the future or that decline kicks in sooner rather than later.
Here's a quick look at the five outside linebackers Thompson has drafted since Matthews in 2009:
One, Rickey Elmore (sixth round 2011), was a full-fledged bust.
Two others, Nate Palmer (sixth round in ’13) and Carl Bradford (fourth round in ’14), had to be moved to inside linebacker.
Another, Nick Perry (first round in ’12), is healthy for the first time in his career, has proven to be a good all-around player and should be re-signed. But as his half-sack in the last three games illustrates, he’s not an impact rusher, at least not without Matthews on the field.
And the last, Kyler Fackrell (third round this year), has had a quiet rookie season. When his playing time spiked the past couple weeks, it was clear he needs to build himself up physically before we’ll know what he might be.
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Thompson did find a stopgap pass rusher two years ago when he made a rare venture into signing an expensive player on the open market and brought in Julius Peppers. But this season Peppers finally is running out of steam at age 36.
So the Packers are staring at a potential talent void at the game's second-most important position, outside pass rusher.
It’s something Thompson has to address in the offseason or risk having last week repeat itself. And what an eye-opener that was.
I went into last week’s game at Tennessee thinking like many Packers observers: The Titans might be improved and the Packers are missing some good players, but coach Mike McCarthy’s team also was desperate coming off a brutal home loss and had Aaron Rodgers. It would find a way to win against a historically inferior team.
But on reflection, it’s clear the more talented club won.
The difference between the Titans’ running backs (DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry) and the Packers’ without Eddie Lacy was galactic. Tennessee also had the best receiving threat on the field (tight end Delanie Walker). And quarterback Marcus Mariota, if not as polished and experienced as Rodgers, is a gifted athlete and up-and-comer.
Defense was about a wash. Matthews would have been the best rusher and Sam Shields, who’s almost certainly out for the season (concussion), would have been the best cover man. But without them, the only standouts for either team were on the defensive line, where Mike Daniels was at best an even match with Tennessee’s outstanding Jurrell Casey.
No wonder Tennessee won.
That’s worth keeping in mind this week, too, with the Packers playing at Washington. Going in, there’s a good argument Washington is the more talented team as well.
Rodgers is more gifted than his counterpart, Kirk Cousins, but if Cousins can manage the game well, then Washington has more talent elsewhere. Its top two tight ends (Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis) are light years better than Richard Rodgers, though if Jared Cook (high ankle sprain) returns he at least might narrow that gap.
If DeSean Jackson (shoulder, questionable) plays, then Washington’s top three receivers (Jackson, Pierre Garcon and slot man Jamison Crowder) are more dynamic than the Packers’ top three (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams).
And Washington has the cover man (Josh Norman) the Packers are missing without Shields.
The Packers’ edges aside from Rodgers will be Daniels and Matthews, assuming he plays. They’ll be the two best front-seven players on the field.
Washington is a three-point favorite, which is the home-field advantage, but it really could be a point or two more.
This is the reality the Packers have to face as they plan their future, regardless of how well or poorly the rest of their season goes.
Shields, who was one of their difference makers, almost certainly isn't coming back. By the end of the season he’ll have missed 20 games because of concussions in barely more than a calendar year. It seems a given he’ll retire, and if he doesn’t the Packers still can’t touch such a high health risk.
Age finally has caught up with Peppers. Even if he rallies for a strong finish, this has to be it for him.
And Matthews is an older player (31 in May) with an unreliable hamstring.
Going into the season, I wouldn’t have guessed that the Packers’ roster would have such big holes. But it does, and they’ll need filling fast, starting with a pass rusher who can take this team into the future regardless of how Matthews' body holds up over time.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.