The NFL is a dynamic sport that comes close to being a soap opera, thus, change is to be expected. It’s doubtful though that the amount of change that the Packers have experienced so far this year is to be expected by any team. Right now the Packers have three linebackers who have held down a starting position sitting on injured reserve (Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, and Nick Perry). In addition to that the leader of the unit, Clay Matthews, is nursing a hamstring injury and may miss a game or two. Needless to say, but this unit has been hit very hard with the injury bug.
Despite all the problems with injury the LB’s have faced, this unit has also brought some of pleasant surprises so far this season. The main pleasant surprise of the season early on was the strong play of A.J. Hawk. During the roughest part of the Packers campaign so far, Hawk was a bright spot for the Packers’ defense. He played physical and at times seemed to be the lone person stopping the run for the Packers. Hawk’s play has not been quite as strong as of late, despite this 2012 has been one of the better years for Hawk.
Another player stepping up his game through the rough patch of the schedule has been Erik Walden. Through the first few weeks of the year Walden stepped up his game and truly shined when splitting time with Nick Perry. Walden has shown a knack for moving all over the field, staying in coverage, and helping shut down the running attack of a defense. He has still struggled to get home during pass rushes though. This can result in some good QB pressures and hits, but often allows an offense to shift their blocking schemes over towards Clay Matthews to nullify him. With Perry now out for the year Walden is going to need to keep his play at a high level for the Packers to succeed.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the defense has been the play of Brad Jones. Jones has stepped in for the injured D.J. Smith. While Smith was having a solid year, Jones has put together an impressive set of games after his move to the inside. Jones has forced turnovers, improved the middle of our pass defense, and shown some ability to pass rush up the gut. One could even make an argument that Jones has been an upgrade over Smith.
What has not been a surprise though is the play of Clay Matthews. Matthews is having a great year. He has 9 sacks on the year so far and is still the principle pass rusher for the Packers. Moreover he has continued his strong play against the run (the best example of this is against the Texans where he near single handedly took away the outside run that Arian Foster loves so much), and has been impressive in pass coverage as well. If it has not been for the amazing play of J.J. Watt, you would probably be hearing about Matthews as a strong candidate for Defensive MVP this year.
The rest of the year is going to be tough on this group, but they are getting reinforcements. The Packer recently have brought back Vic So’oto and activated Frank Zombo. Neither are world beaters, but both have some ability to play the run and get pressure. At the very least both should be able to help the OLB rotation and perhaps help the Packers defense muddle through the temporary loss of Matthews.
Overall Grade For This Position Group: B-
It’s hard to deny that the Packers have plenty of depth and talent at LB this year, but unfortunately this depth is currently being challenged by the amount of injuries that have hit the group. Real judgment for this position will revolve around how long Matthews will miss with his hamstring injury and whether Jones, Hawk, and Walden can continue their improved play. The good news is that it does not appear Matthews will miss much, but the bad news is that only Jones was still playing hot into the bye.