In 2010, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl and finished No. 2 in scoring defense with Clay Matthews piling up 13.5 sacks.
Last season, Matthews had six sacks and all of Packers’ outside linebackers combined had 12. Not coincidentally, the Packers finished 32nd in yards allowed and couldn’t get off the field, whether it was Week 1 against New Orleans or the playoffs against New York.
Enter Matthews’ former USC teammate, Nick Perry, the Packers’ first-round draft pick. In 2010, it wasn’t just Matthews. Frank Zombo (four), Erik Walden (three) and Brady Poppinga (one) added eight sacks as the position group contributed 21.5. If Perry can get eight sacks, that would provide a quality one-two punch that would get the Packers out of the defensive doghouse. If the Packers could lead the league with 31 interceptions with no pass rush, how many picks could they pile up with Matthews and Perry giving the quarterback happy feet?
Who will be the backups? Do the Packers stick with Erik Walden, despite his lack of production, and Frank Zombo, despite his lengthy injury history? Do they start from scratch with youngsters Vic So'oto and Dezman Moses? Does Brad Jones figure in the mix after being moved to inside linebacker?
Clay Matthews (6-3, 255; fourth year): With 29.5 sacks in three seasons, Matthews ranks ninth in Packers history. If he has a repeat of 2010, when he posted 13.5 sacks, Matthews would push his total to 43, which would pass Ezra Johnson (41.5) for fifth place. With six turnover plays last season (three interceptions, three forced fumbles), he trailed only Terrell Suggs (nine) and James Willis (seven) among all linebackers.
Nick Perry (6-3, 265; rookie, R-1): Perry, the first-round pick, lined up as the starter at left outside linebacker from the first snap of offseason practices. Position coach Kevin Greene said Perry was the top prospect he scouted. Perry left USC following a junior season in which he had 9.5 sacks, 13 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles. He was a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award that goes to the nation’s top defensive end.
Erik Walden (6-2, 250; fifth year): Late in the 2010 season, Walden was named NFC defensive player of the year after recording three sacks of Jay Cutler. The encore, however, was a bust, with Walden tallying three sacks all season. He’s tough at the point of attack but is fooled too easily and makes too few impact plays.
Frank Zombo (6-3, 254; third year): Zombo expected to challenge Walden for the starting job last year. Instead, he broke his scapula before a preseason game and never was a factor. He played in just five games, also missing time with knee and hamstring injuries. He went from four sacks and two forced fumbles in 2010 to one sack in 2011.
Dezman Moses (6-2, 249; UDFA): Moses had a sack in both days of the minicamp. He had 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles as a senior defensive end at Tulane. Moses spent his first two years as a reserve linebacker at Iowa, so Greene isn’t starting from scratch on vision and coverage. “He’s really fluid and has some God-given ability,” Greene said.
Vic So’oto (6-3, 263; second year): So’oto ended last preseason with two strong performances, including against Indianapolis, when he tore apart the starters for 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pick-six. He played only sparingly in five of the first 14 games until tallying one sack and three quarterback hits in the final two games.
Total: 6 (with ILBs Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore cross-training to make it 8). On 2011 opening roster: 6.
Final prediction (4): Matthews, Perry, Moses and So’oto.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.