GREEN BAY, Wis. – Clay Matthews is learning new playbook terminology this spring under a new defensive coordinator, though his overall goals haven’t changed.
It’s more important than ever for the Green Bay Packers’ long-haired linebacker to get to the quarterback.
The Packers didn’t add a potential game-changing edge rusher in free agency or via the draft. They focused on another defensive priority and replenished the cornerback position with veteran Tramon Williams and draft picks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson.
That leaves Matthews and Nick Perry as leaders of a pass rush that had trouble getting consistent pressure last year.
“Well, I wasn’t surprised with the first two picks. … But obviously, you look at the depth at the outside linebacker position, and it’s not that great,” Matthews said. “That’s not a slight to the guys who are behind Nick and myself, but you look around the league, a lot of times they’re rotating in pass rushers.”
The Packers had veteran Julius Peppers in the mix on the edge a couple seasons ago, but he returned to Carolina in 2017. Second-year player Kyler Fackrell and veteran Ahmad Brooks, who combined for 4 1/2 sacks, were the primary backups outside.
Matthews and Perry each missed time last season with injuries. With a lack of production from the bench, getting fresh blood seemed to make sense.
Matthews said he understands that signings don’t always go as planned for the front office. There are only so many draft picks to make. The salary cap limits spending.
“I’m happy with the picks they made, and at the same time it does show … their confidence in Nick and myself, as well as the guys we have,” Matthews said. “At some time I’m sure it will be addressed, but for the time being the guys we have here are the guys who have to hold up their end of the bargain.”
It would help if Fackrell and second-year player Vince Biegel became more productive. Biegel missed the first seven games last season because of a foot injury.
“The biggest gains we’ve always made have been from our returning players, particularly the second, third year players,” coach Mike McCarthy said after the draft about outside linebacker depth.
The pass rush could get more productive if other areas of the defense also improve.
Tighter pass coverage could give edge rushers more time to get to the quarterback. Green Bay also hopes to get more push up front from free agent signee Muhammad Wilkerson, who has 44 1/2 career sacks.
He joins Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry on the line, which should be the strength of new coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. Pettine was the New York Jets’ defensive coordinator in Wilkerson’s first two years in the league in 2011-12.
“Everybody’s learning, some of the wording is a little different from back years ago when I was with Pettine,” Wilkerson said. “We’re all getting through it.”
Matthews knows that Pettine wants to be aggressive, though there is plenty of time to figure out exactly what role he’ll play this fall. It’s quite possible that it doesn’t change much after Matthews showed the flexibility to play both outside and inside the last few years.
Pettine replaced Dom Capers, who was fired after the 7-9 season. Capers had been Matthews’ only defensive coordinator since the linebacker entered the league in 2009.
“Like I said, someone needed to fall on the knife. I think it’s all done to get better results, and that’s exactly what we’re here for,” Matthews said. “In the new defense we’re getting ready to hit this season strong and, like I said, hold up our end of the bargain.”
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