GREEN BAY, Wis. — Nick Perry has a feeling that something special is about to happen in Green Bay this season. If Perry and fellow starting outside linebacker Clay Matthews, along with the rest of the defense, are able to perform all season the way they did in their third preseason game last week, the Packers’ rookie could be on to something.
Green Bay’s 29 sacks last season were a significant drop-off from the 47 registered by the team’s Super Bowl-winning defense in 2010. The extra time given to opposing quarterbacks didn’t keep the Packers from 15 regular-season wins, but it did contribute to them allowing more passing yards than any team in NFL history.
Much of the offseason was spent trying to add pass rushers around Matthews, most notably Perry, the team’s first-round pick. Progress was hard to find in the first two preseason games, but with the majority of Green Bay’s starting defense playing the entire first half of last week’s win against the Cincinnati Bengals, Matthews and company showed signs of what made them so dominant in 2010. There were only two sacks, but there were seven quarterback hits and three pass deflections by linebackers behind the line of scrimmage.
“We did all the things Thursday night that you want to do on defense,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers told FOXSportsWisconsin.com.
Capers specifically referenced that his defense won 12 of 13 third and fourth downs, won 18 of 23 first downs and only gave up two “big” plays.
“That’s what you want it to look like,” Capers said.
Late last season, veteran defensive back Charles Woodson said he liked the way Capers allowed the defense to play a more downhill and aggressive style in a 45-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10. More blitzes were called and players were given more freedom to make plays. Quite surprisingly, Green Bay’s defense was never that bold again the rest of the season.
“As a defensive player, your mentality is, we want to come after people,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. “We want to attack. That’s the mentality of defensive guys. I don’t think you’re going to find too many defensive guys that say we want to play soft zone, we want to just read and react, we want to play easy.
“The reason these guys are on defense is because they feel like they’re the lions on the Serengeti and they want to hunt.”
It was alarming that Matthews, after falling just short of winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010 with 13.5 sacks, fell to six sacks last season. Matthews made it a point then to mention frequently that his performance should be judged on more than just sacks, and the coaching staff agrees.
“I thought he had a better year, myself,” Greene said. “I probably know him the best. I know his vision improved last year. His physicality improved. His awareness improved. Even though his numbers were down, people put a lot of stock in that, but he had many times where he was coming for a sack and the ball’s out of the pocket.
“He had a fine season as far as I’m concerned.”
Even with a statistically worse season in 2011, Matthews’ first three years in the NFL have been about as good as any player’s could be. The Packers drafted Matthews 26th overall in 2009 and have watched him accumulate 29.5 sacks in that time, plus six forced fumbles and four interceptions.
But Green Bay’s coaching staff won’t allow Matthews to become content.
“I don’t think as an athlete you can ever say you’ve arrived,” Greene said. “Seriously. If an athlete ever says, ‘I’m the king of the hill,’ that’s the start of his downfall. I think Clay knows that. I think he knows he needs to continue to improve his craft, work on his technique and fundamental, and improve his vision.
“So there’s always something that he is working on.”
One reason Matthews didn’t reach the quarterback as often last season was because the Packers didn’t have another threat to pair with him. With defensive end Cullen Jenkins taking his seven sacks from 2010 and signing with the Philadelphia Eagles, Matthews drew all of the attention from opposing teams.
“I think an offense can basically look at one man and say we’re not going to allow this guy to make a play,” Greene said. “We’re going to put two on him everywhere he goes and sometimes three.
“I’ve seen some people get double-teamed in my life, but I’ve never seen more teams and more schemes than to double-team Clay. Offensive coordinators said we cannot let 52 get started. We can’t let him get to the quarterback. So we’ve got to take him out of the game and see if anybody else can apply pressure.”
Though Greene wouldn’t compare his outside linebacker group from this season to last year’s, the group has also added undrafted rookie Dezman Moses, who has had a terrific training camp and has become a lock to make the team. Greene also now has Perry, who was drafted specifically for his pass-rushing ability.
Perry had to make the switch from being a 4-3 defensive end in college at USC to an outside linebacker in Green Bay’s 3-4 defense but has been the starter since Day 1.
“I know some stuff wasn’t getting done (last season),” Perry said. “That happened a long time ago. We’re putting that away. There’s better things to come for this year. So we’re just moving ahead.”
Perry had a memorable moment in the Cincinnati game when he bull-rushed his way into Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to force a quick throwaway. He also had a sack in the team’s preseason opener.
If Perry can continue to improve and Moses’ incredible rise doesn’t stop, the Packers’ pass rush may be on its way to getting back to its 2010 form. “I like the progress we made in terms of pressuring the quarterback,” Capers said. “I see some young guys that are getting better. You like when we see the potential of those guys. We know what we have with a guy like Clay, and I thought (defensive lineman) B.J. (Raji) did well. But I thought our young guys did, too.
“You saw Nick Perry show up, you saw Dezman Moses show up, you saw Erik Walden show up, and those are all guys we’re going to be counting on. The more of those guys that can produce for us rushing the passer, the better we’ll be.”