Packers Roster Countdown: Part 21

LB Clay Matthews (Ed Mulholland/USP)

On our list of the Packers' most important players, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson — Nos. 2 and 3 on our list — are irreplaceable members of the defense. Can Matthews handle the next challenge in his career? Can Woodson remain an elite player with his 36th birthday approaching?

As we've done in past years, we're counting down the Green Bay Packers' roster, from No. 90 to No. 1.

These rankings are not simply based on skill. Players were ranked on their importance to the team. Skill, a player's position, the depth of his position group, the odds he contributes, salary and draft history all play a part in how a player is ranked. More than the ranking itself, hopefully you will learn a little something about each of the 90 players in the process.

No. 2: The Claymaker

In 2010, the Packers finished second in the NFL in points allowed and fifth in total defense. Clay Matthews piled up 13.5 sacks to spearhead that defensive dominance.

In 2011, the Packers finished 19th in points allowed and 32nd in total defense. Matthews managed just six sacks and the pass defense was destroyed in record fashion.

Yes, it is an oversimplification to say the defense went in the tank because Matthews couldn't match his third-ranked 23.5 sacks from 2009 and 2010. Still, there's no debating the value of Matthews' production. Including the playoffs, the Packers are 20-5 when Matthews collects a sack. That's a .800 winning percentage when Matthews gets a sack and .655 when he does not.

Sacks, of course, aren't the only measuring stick in pressuring the quarterback. Last season, even without the benefit of a "Robin" to play off Matthews' "Batman," Matthews was a menace. In 2010, he had 60 total pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. In 2011, he had 66. However, without that sidekick, quarterbacks generally had time to step up in the pocket or move out of the pocket to unload the ball before feeling Matthews' wrath.

What makes Matthews so good is he's such an all-around player. In three seasons, he's got four interceptions; the Packers are 4-0 in those games. He's forced seven fumbles; the Packers are 6-1 in those games.

Now, the challenge is to ratchet his game up another notch. Last year, those six sacks came while matched up mostly against the opposing team's right tackle. Now, with the addition of first-round pick Nick Perry, Matthews mostly will be going up against the left tackle. For as good as Matthews has been, he ranked a good-but-not-great 11th among edge rushers (3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends) in ProFootballFocus.com's three-year pass-rushing study.

"You can never let him think he's arrived," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "You've always got to challenge him. And you treat him the same as you treat anybody else in the room. ‘This is the way I would like it done, and do it this way.' Of course, I give this to all my players, ‘You're the player on the field, and you ultimately have to play the game. If you feel you can play something differently and better, then you do it how you feel. But you'd better make the play, because you're doing it against what I'm coaching.' You follow me? You basically try to keep him grounded, you try to treat him like all the other kids in the room, and then you always try to inspire him to achieve greatness. You hold him accountable. When he's messing up, you tell him. And when he does something right, you love him."

No. 3: Woodson's role

Like Matthews, Charles Woodson is an irreplaceable part of the defense. The Packers used a second-round pick on Casey Hayward, who potentially can play a Woodson-like, jack-of-all-trades sort of role. But for now, Hayward is merely potential. Woodson, on the other hand, is as good as it gets. Even at 35, he's the gold standard of playing nickel, where he's required to go one-on-one against a slot receiver, stuff the run and blitz the quarterback.

"You've got to play at times like a linebacker in there," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You've got to be able to play a gap at times on the run. You've got to be able to tackle backs more. You've got to be able to blitz and win one-on-one against backs. It takes a more physical presence inside. You're going to get involved more in the physical aspects of the game inside. The way we play, you have to understand when you're going to contain or squeeze the play or when you're going to spill a play, which corners outside in the sub stuff aren't quite as involved."

As we wrote in our Training Camp Countdown piece, Woodson allowed a passer rating of 40.3 when in the slot. That was the best in the league — a fact that doesn't quite do that number justice. No. 2 on the list was Houston's Brice McCann with a 48.5 rating. Nobody else allowed a passer rating of less than 60, and Woodson was one of eight cornerbacks to yield a passer rating of less than 70. Woodson tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions — making him the second-oldest interception champion in NFL history behind Rod Woodson (37). Of those, a league-high four came when he was lined up in the slot.

With his 36th birthday on Oct. 7, Woodson eventually will have to move to safety or retire. That time is not now, though it's at least a good bet he'll be the safety when the Packers use their base 3-4 defense. They used that grouping about 15 percent of the time last season.

"Charles will be doing a lot of things for us," Capers said. "We've got a lot of different personnel groups. More so than anybody else, he plays all over the field. Up to this time, he's played corner, he's played nickel, he's played dime, he's played safety, he's played linebacker. He's played them all. I think that what we'll do is we'll see where he is and we'll use him as a matchup guy, and that changes from week to week."

If you missed ...

Williams and Perry: 4-5

Raji and Worthy: 6-7

Jennings and Nelson: 8-9

Defining season for Shields: 10

Finley, Burnett and ...: 11-15

Three O-linemen: 16-20

Some surprises: 21-25

Safety dance: 26-30

Bush and four on offense: 31-35

Two DL and Driver: 36-40

Make-or-break camp for two vets: 41-45

Going hog wild: 46-50

Rookies at key positions: 51-55

Gurley's detours: 56

Fighting for jobs: 57-60

Five defenders: 61-65

Don't be surprised if ...: 66-70

It's Noah's Ark: 71-81

Roster long shots: 82-89

Longest of long shots: 90


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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